School Board Relations

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control of the schools
michael d. usdan

relation of school board to the community
kenneth k. wong

relation of school board to the superintendentthomas e. glass


American public education is uniquely structured: Unlike most other nations that tend to have highly centralized national systems of education, the locus of educational decision-making in the United States has traditionally been local. Some 14,000 local school districts in fifty diverse state systems have had delegated to them much of the operational responsibility for public education. Legally, education is a responsibility of the states, which have historically given local districts broad discretionary latitude to operate their systems. The federal government, until the last decade or so of the twentieth century, has had little overt control over education, but has always had considerable influence as national programs have multiplied through the years.

Beginning in the 1990s, and to some extent before then, these traditional roles of the federal, state, and local governments have been changing. As in so many other policy areas of the American polity, the focus of decision-making in education is shifting from the local to the higher levels of government. Increasingly, educational problems are being discussed and resolved in state capitols and Washington, D.C. Citizens have recognized that the problems confronting the public schools cannot be detached from society's broader social, economic, and political concerns. There has been widespread concomitant acknowledgment that local property taxes cannot be the major source of support for schools and that local boards of education will be compelled to rely increasingly on state and federal governments for fiscal assistance. Thus, issues like inequities in school finance, racial and ethnic disparities in student achievement, the relationship of schools to economic growth and development, and related education problems require attention at the state and national levels.

Although many important issues are now debated and acted upon in state capitols and in Washington, D.C., it would be a mistake to underestimate the continuing influence of local school boards. School boards retain important powers that often are overlooked by education reformers who frequently ignore the district levela vital, strategic cornerstone of the education governance structure.

Rightly or wrongly, local boards and the administrative staffs whom they employ are often regarded by reformers as part of the problem and not the solution to the complex issues confronting American education. As a result, local school boards and superintendents frequently have been unengaged in the ongoing education reform debate.

Indeed, other than a few studies, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the local governance structure have been remarkably ignored during a period of unprecedented public ferment and national interest in public education. But the school board, a unique grass roots representative institution with 97,000 individuals serving as members in approximately 14,000 local districts, persists as a crucial governance linchpin between the school and state levels.

Local school boards and the superintendents whom they employ do not necessarily have to be proactive, progressive, or creative to influence educational policy in very significant ways. Reformers must recognize that many boards and district administrators also influence and shape policy through their inaction. Indeed, as public polls reflect, in many school systems board members and administrators may be accurately reflecting and translating local values and goals in behaving in ways that do not aggressively push for education reform. In other words, in many communities there is basic acceptance of the status quo in schools; reformers, if they are to be successful in their laudable efforts to institutionalize change in the system, must be sensitive to the importance of such local values and goals. Critics will likely have to work with school boards as they appear to be permanent institutions and will continue in exercise considerable direct and indirect influence over the nation's decentralized and diffused educational system.

Local boards have enormous influence because they have the power to hire and fire the superintendent of schools, and have ultimate budgetary responsibilities and set the policy parameters for the district. Board members set the tone with regard to relationships with teachers, parents, and administrators as well as the community at large. If, for example, decentralization or restructuring (however defined) is to have any meaning, local school boards must support and perhaps prod their superintendents into delegating meaningful personnel and budgetary prerogatives to the building level.

Although it is extremely unlikely that the United States would create a fragmented governance structure with 14,000 local units if it could build the system de novo, the local board evidently appears to be too much a part of the fundamental political and educational tradition and culture to be structurally tampered with despite widespread apprehensions in the early twenty-first century about the effectiveness of schools and the pervasive and all too often justified criticism of school boards.

Education reformers can work more effectively within the existing structure to implement changes with the support of influential local officials; for example, district officials in their strategic position between state and building levels could serve as brokers or mediators. There are, for example, some definite contradictions between the "restructuring" movement with its emphasis on the importance of building level autonomy and the top-down regulatory nature of many late-twentieth-century state enactments that often have generated a numbing standardization in the educational process. Local boards and superintendents could be well-positioned intermediaries in efforts to reconcile these basic contradictions between top-down state regulations and bottom-up building level initiatives. Other steps could be taken to propel local boards more directly into the forefront of public discourse about education reform designed to increase student achievement. There is widespread civic ignorance about the roles and responsibilities of local boards and their strategic position in the education governance structure. Indeed, many of the new architects of educational policy from the political and business worlds could be given basic grounding in the rudiments of how schools are governed and organized.

More public attention should be focused upon issues such as the rapid turnover of local board members, the abysmally low voter turnout in local board elections, and the serious managerial, policy-setting, and operational problems that confront many local school officials. Educational reformers and the public at large must pay more attention to strengthening a vital institution that will continue to play an important role in shaping the nation's education future.

See also: National School Boards Association; School Boards.


Carver, John. 2000. "Remaking Governance." American School Board Journal 187 (3):100108.

Danzberger, Jacqueline; Kirst, Michael; and Usdan, Michael. 1992. Governing Public Schools: New Times, New Requirements. Washington, DC: The Institute for Educational Leadership.

Danzberger, Jacqueline, and Usdan, Michael. 2000. "The Role of School Boards in Standards-Based Reform." Basic Education 44 (8).

Gemberling, Kathryn W.; Smith, Carl W; and Villani, Joseph S. 2000. The Key Work of School Boards Guidebook. Washington, DC: National School Boards Association.

internet resources

Goodman, Richard H., and Zimmerman, William G., Jr. 2000. "Thinking Differently: Recommendations for 21st Century School Board/Superintendent Leadership, Governance and Teamwork for High Student Achievement." <>.

Institute for Educational Leadership. 2001. "Leadership for Student Learning: Restructuring School District Leadership." <>.

Michael D. Usdan


American public schools are still primarily controlled by local school boards. There are fewer boards than in the past: In the early twenty-first century, 14,000 local school boards govern more than 90,000 schools; in the 1920s, there were 130,000 school boards. Although four out of five school boards are responsible for fewer than 3,000 students, the average size of each board has grown over the years. About a third of all boards are located in five states: California, Texas, Illinois, Nebraska, and New York. While 95 percent of the school boards are popularly elected, school boards in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, and several other cities are appointed by the mayor.

Characteristics of School Boards

Autonomous school board control can be justified by several widely held views in the literature. First, the school board as an autonomous institution is embedded in strongly held public beliefs in democratic, nonpartisan control over public education. The public has traditionally equated local control with districtwide board authority in the constitutional-legal framework of educational governance. In contrasting private and public schools, John Chubb and Terry Moe characterized public school governance as "direct democratic control" (p. 2).

From an economic perspective, the presence of multiple school board systems resembles a quasi-market arrangement that can be cost-efficient to the consumers. States and localities with multiple suppliers of services promise a better fit between consumer-taxpayers' preferences and the level and quality of local services. As Charles Tiebout's (1956) classic work suggested, taxpayers make residential decisions that would maximize the benefits they expect to obtain from public services and minimize the level of taxes that they have to pay for those services. In particular, middle-class taxpayers who can afford to spend more on goods and services are keenly concerned about the quality of basic services, such as schools. As Albert Hirschman (1970) argued, they are more ready to exit when they perceive a decline in those municipal services that they value. Studies of district-level performance in metropolitan areas suggest that interdistrict competition can improve service quality. The out-migration of middle-class families to suburban school districts seems to provide the empirical support for this line of argument. Recent establishment of quasi-public boards that oversee charter schools also shows the increasing popularity of parental choice when the neighborhood schools are failing.

Yet a third view is based on functional consideration. Thomas Shannon, former executive director of the National School Boards Association, has argued that school boards serve several indispensable functions for the common good. They develop strategic plans, manage the operation of the system, comply with federal and state laws, evaluate educational programs, arbitrate complaints from citizens and employees, and represent the collective interests of the entire district. The boards also negotiate contracts with teachers unions and serve as managerial buffers between individual schools and state and federal agencies. In other words, local school boards make a "non-nationalized" educational system functional.

Performance-Based Accountability

As the public increases its demands for performance-based accountability in public schools, the quality of school board governance is called into question. Facing the Challenge: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on School Governance by the Twentieth Century Fund observed in 1992 that school boards "are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy and relevance" (p. 1). According to a 1988 to 1990 survey by Jacqueline Danzberger and colleagues of school board members in 128 districts in 16 states, even school board members perceived themselves as least effective in "the core elements of governanceleadership, planning and goal setting, involving parents and the community, influence on others, policy oversight, board operations, and board development" (p. 56). For example, the survey showed that boards used inconsistent performance measures to evaluate their superintendents. Further, due to the Progressive tradition of taking politics out of schools, school boards are largely isolated from other lateral institutions (e.g., housing and health care agencies) that affect the well-being of children.

The decline in public confidence over school board leadership seems salient in urban districts. Based on a 1998 survey, the National School Boards Foundation found that "[t]here is a consistent, significant difference in perception between urban school board members and the urban public on a number of key issues" (p. 12). Although 67 percent of the urban board members rated schools in A and B categories, only 49 percent of the urban public did. Whereas three out of four board members rated the teachers as excellent and good, only 54 percent of the public agreed. The public seemed half as likely as the board members to agree that the schools were "doing a good job" in the following areas: preparing students for college, keeping violence and drugs out of schools, maintaining discipline among students, and teaching children who do not speak English. Subsequently, the National School Boards Foundation called upon urban leaders to sharpen the focus on student performance.

In light of these concerns, several reforms have been tried to improve accountability. One reform aims at promoting a sense of "ownership" among parents at the school site. While New York City and numerous urban districts experimented with some form of site-based governance in the 1960s, the most extensive decentralization occurred in Chicago when 1988 state legislation created local school councils in all the public schools in the city. Between 1989 and 1995, each of the 550 Chicago schools was primarily governed by an elected, parent-dominated local school council, whose authority included the selection of principal and the use of a substantial discretionary fund. However, community support for the local school council gradually declined. From 1989 to 1993, turnout among parents and community residents plunged by 68 percent, and fewer candidates signed up for local school council offices. As the reforms of the local school councils failed to turn around low performing schools, the legislature enacted another reform that enabled mayoral control over schools in 1995.

Race and School Boards

A second type of reform is associated with racial succession in school boards. Many analysts observe that the predominantly white power structure seems less ready to respond to the minority and low-income constituency in urban schools. According to this view, a shift in racial control over governmental institutions would improve school quality and promote student performance. However, this conventional expectation is not empirically supported by a study in 2000 by Jeffrey Henig and colleagues of school reform in four African-Americanled cities, namely Atlanta, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Detroit, Michigan; and the District of Columbia. None of the cities were able to produce any measurable educational progress for minority students. The authors found that "racialized politics" has contributed to governance ineffectiveness in both direct and indirect ways. Particularly important is the intensity to which local stakeholders are affected by "fears, suspicions, expectations, loyalties, tactics, and habits related to race" (p. 7). Multiple facets of racialized politics are illuminated by the authors' careful analysis of interviews with hundreds of actors both outside and inside the formal governmental institutions, including generally influential people (e.g., city council members and business leaders), community advocates, and education specialists.

The four cities provide ample evidence on how racial concerns have constrained the collective behaviors of both black and white elites. For example, African-American community activists are reluctant to criticize African-American city officials because they want to preserve the reputation of black institutions in general. Likewise, white business elites tend to refrain from criticizing African-American-controlled school systems for fear that their actions are seen in racial terms. In other words, race "complicates" coalition building because it "continues to affect perceptions, calculations, loyalties, and concerns in ways that tug at the thread of collaboration and erode civic capacity to undertake meaningful and sustained reform" (p. 212). Interracial trust and confidence become so limited that civic capacity lacks a solid foundation.

Integrated Governance

The third strand of reform is "integrated governance," where there is an integration of political accountability and educational performance standards at the systemwide level. In numerous urban districts, the mayor takes control over schools with an appointed school board and superintendent (for example, Chicago began such a system in 1995). In this regard, mayoral leadership in education occurs in a policy context where years of decentralized reform alone have not produced systemwide improvement in student performance in big city schools. Reform advocates who pushed for site-based strategies may have overestimated the capacity of the school community to raise academic standards. Decentralized reforms are directed at reallocating power between the systemwide authority and the schools within the public school system. However, decentralized initiatives often fail to take into full consideration powerful quasi-formal actors, such as the teacher union and other organized interests. Decisions made at the school site are constrained by collective bargaining agreements. In addition, decentralization may widen the resource gap between schools that have access to external capital (such as parental organizational skills and grants from foundations) and those that receive limited support from nongovernmental sources. In response to these concerns, "integrated governance" enables the mayor to rely on systemwide standards to hold schools and students accountable for their performance. Failing schools and students are subject to sanctions while they are given additional support.

Measuring Performance

Efforts to improve school board accountability also present a challenge for developing a framework to measure performance of the school boards. Although student performance serves as a useful indicator of the overall performance of a school system, its aggregated character falls short of specifying the link between the functions of the school boards and school performance. In other words, there is a need to develop indicators of institutional effectiveness to assess the school boards. Toward this goal, Kenneth Wong and Mark Moulton attempted in 1998 to develop an institutional "report card" on various state and local actors, including the school board. Using survey responses from members of the broad policy community in Illinois, Wong and Moulton found that the school board and the central administration in Chicago have significantly improved their institutional rating following mayoral control.

In short, school boards are in transition. While many communities maintain the tradition of non-partisan, popularly elected school boards, urban districts that are perceived as low performing are likely to attempt alternative governance. In the early twenty-first century, a greater number of urban school boards are likely to be appointed by mayors and/or challenged by charter schools. Thus, school boards, regardless of their student enrollment and region, will be driven by public concerns over accountability.

See also: Educational Accountability; Family, School, and Community Connections; School Boards.


Chubb, John, and Moe, Terry. 1990. Politics, Markets and America's Schools. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Danzberger, Jacqueline; Kirst, Michael; and Usdan, Michael. 1992. Governing Public Schools: New Times, New Requirements. Washington, DC: The Institute for Educational Leadership.

Henig, Jeffrey; Hula, Richard; Orr, Marion; and Pedescleaux, Desiree. 1999. The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics, and the Challenge of Urban Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hill, Paul. 1997. "Contracting in Public Education," In New Schools for a New Century, ed. Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hirschman, Albert. 1971. Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hoxby, Caroline. 1998. "What Do America's 'Traditional' Forms of School Choice Teach Us about School Choice Reform?" Economic Policy Review 4 (1):4759.

National School Boards Foundation. 1999. Leadership Matters: Transforming Urban School Boards. Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Foundation.

Shannon, Thomas. 1992. "Local Control and 'Organizacrats."' In School Boards: Changing Local Control, ed. Patricia E. First and Herbert J. Walberg. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

Tiebout, Charles. 1956. "A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures." Journal of Political Economy 64:416424.

Twentieth Century Fund. 1992. Facing the Challenge: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on School Governance. New York: The Twentieth Century Fund.

Wong, Kenneth. 1999. Funding Public Schools: Politics and Policy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Wong, Kenneth. 2000. "Big Change Questions: Chicago School Reform: From Decentralization to Integrated Governance." Journal of Educational Change 1:97105.

Wong, Kenneth. 2001. "Integrated Governance in Chicago and Birmingham (UK)." In School Choice or Best Systems, ed. Margaret C. Wang and Herbert J. Walberg. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wong, Kenneth, and Jain, Pushpam. 1999. "Newspapers as Policy Actors in Urban School Systems: The Chicago Story." Urban Affairs Review 35 (2):210246.

Wong, Kenneth, and Moulton, Mark. 1998. "Governance Report Cards: Accountability in the Chicago Public School System." Education and Urban Society 30:459478.

Kenneth K. Wong


By providing a free public education for rich and poor, local school boards have nurtured and protected American democracy for more than a century. This American institution anchors a local governance model that is unique among the national systems of education throughout the world.

The organization of school districts and school boards has changed little in one hundred years. The new millennium finds about 14,320 school districts predominantly governed by elected layperson boards of five or seven members. The average school district enrolls 2,200 students and is located in a nonurban setting. Although the majority of Americans live in cities and suburbs, the majority of school districts are located in small towns and rural areas. There are nearly 80,000 school board members but only several hundred urban board members guide policy and management for half the nations' school children. Each decade a higher percentage of children attend schools in suburbs and the cities.

School Board Members

Unfortunately, there is little available data describing demographics and characteristics of local school board members. It can be reasonably assumed from scattered data that about 60 percent of board members are men with a college education who work in white-collar positions. The number of women and minority board members appears to be increasing. It also seems that a minority of board members are parents of school-age children.

The role of local boards is characterized in the literature as the means by which community members can participate in setting educational policies affecting their children and the spending of local tax dollars. The local school board member role involves seeking out the opinions of the community and representing their educational interests through formulation of policy.

School Board Service

Most members serve without pay in positions that require countless hours per week of listening to citizens, reading, and attending meetings. Until the 1960s, most authorities described a typical board members' motivation for serving as filling a community obligation. Boards were comprised of "main street" businessmen, professionals, and occasionally retired school administrators. These boards usually functioned without partisan politics, and seldom did members focus on single or controversial personal agendas.

Many boards in the early twenty-first century are comprised of members who are elected to represent specific interest groups, such as teachers or taxpayer groups. Or, they serve on the board with a single agenda interest, such as special education, bilingual education, school prayer, fixing a school program, or firing a coach or superintendent. Most authorities agree school boards are considerably more politicized than in the past. Board members with political agendas sincerely believe their actions serve the schools and the public interest.

The Superintendent

The most important action a school board takes is the selection of a superintendent. For the average school district this happens every six or seven years. For districts mired in conflict it might occur every two or three years. Superintendent tenure data suggests that districts with stable boards and communities tend to attract higher quality superintendents and keep them longer. Since a school district is almost a perfect reflection of its community, it is not surprising to find turmoil-ridden boards in communities beset by contentious issues, such as poverty, high unemployment, illiteracy, and racial tension.

The impression, established by media and journal articles, is that constant turmoil and struggle between boards and superintendents exist in all districts. Fewer than 1 percent of superintendents are terminated each year. A larger number, however, move on to other districts after acrimonious relations with the board or certain board members. The American Association of School Administrators study conducted every ten years gives a more realistic picture of the state of school board and superintendent relations. For decades superintendents have reported their annual evaluations given by boards to be "excellent" or "good." In about fifteen percent of the districts reported, however, the superintendent's evaluation does signal a problem in board relations.

The root of many conflicts between boards and superintendents is a "zone of acceptance." This is the zone in which the superintendent may operate and make decisions. Most boards directly and indirectly create the parameters of the zone. Often individual board members try to add to or delete from the actions a superintendent has been led to believe are in the zone. The result is conflict with the board or individual board members. In turn, superintendents generally create "zones of acceptance" within which other district administrators work. When the superintendent's "zone" is altered, sometimes the entire administrative structure of the district is changed.

Boards and Superintendents: The Working Relationship

The relationship between board and superintendent begins prior to hiring. The superintendent search process for most districts is intensive and includes several visits to the district by each finalist. During these one-or two-day interviews, board members form an initial relationship with the future superintendent. This is probably not true if in-house candidates are being considered. Often one or more board members are not enthusiastic about a candidate later selected by the board majority. This may create a situation where the new superintendent must quickly "prove" himself or herself to the board member (s).

In many districts after initial hiring the superintendent enjoys a "honeymoon" period with the board. This is seldom more than six-months in duration, or until a serious problem arises with the superintendent's position or an action is opposed by one or more board members. During these first few months the superintendent and board are becoming acquainted with each others' views about district operations. This is a critical time for board and superintendent to establish parameters of decision-making. Perceptive boards set limits within which the superintendent may make unilateral decisions. The types of decisions that can be made by the board and those that are the responsibility of the superintendent should be clearly understood and respected by each party. By doing this many potential conflicts can be avoided between boards and superintendents. Well-functioning boards appear to have clear role definitions for the superintendent and themselves.


Communication is the critical element of superintendent and board relations. Many superintendents spend very little time in direct communication with board members. Several national superintendent studies claim the average superintendent spends less than three hours per week in talking or meeting with board members. Not included in direct communication are written memos and letters from the superintendent to the board. Most likely a sizable percentage of the time superintendents do spend in board communication is with the board president.

A 2000 study of 175 of the nation's leading superintendents showed this group spent three times more effort in direct communication with board members. It was not uncommon for these superintendents to spend more than a full work day each week in talking with board members.

The lack of time spent with board members by some superintendents can be explained by a long-held negative view of boards and board members. Often educators view boards as "outsiders" possessing power to make unwise or arbitrary decisions affecting schools, students, and staff. Collective bargaining often hardens negative opinion about boards in the eyes of district staff.

An important piece of written communication is the "board package." In nearly every school district, prior to board meetings, a loose-leaf binder that contains information about each meeting agenda item is distributed by the superintendent's office. This board package can be voluminous, taking several hours of study time for board members. The content of the board package often serves to initiate communication between board members and the superintendent. A few superintendents take the initiative and personally call board members to ask if they have questions or concerns about the meeting agenda and the information included in the board package. Others wait for board members to call. The flow and type of superintendent and board communication varies from district to district, and is certainly being modified by the use of e-mail.

Some boards desire that the superintendent directly communicate with the board president (or chair), leaving to that board member the responsibility to inform other members. Most boards, however, wish to give each member the opportunity to directly communicate with the superintendent.

Communication problems arise when board members initiate communication directly with principals and staff without giving the superintendent prior notification. Some board members will go so far as to directly, or by insinuation, instruct a principal or staff member. This undercuts the superintendent's authority and creates confusion in the district. Teachers and administrators often interpret intrusion by board members to mean the superintendent lacks authority. The superintendent and other board members may take offense, and the result may be a severe strain on board and superintendent relations.

School problems of board members' children are sometimes a source of conflict between superintendents and individual board members. These personal conflicts can permanently damage working relationships. Despite restrictions on nepotism, in some states, board members have spouses or relatives working in the district. This can be the source of another serious personal conflict between the superintendent and board members. Lastly, some board members may possess direct or indirect business links with district vendors or competing vendors. Board business interests can create conflict with the superintendent and a legal problem for district.

Perhaps the most often encountered superintendent and board conflict area is the "special" interest of board members. Frequently, board members seek board office in order to see a specific objective enacted. This might be the termination of a coach or administrator, or even the superintendent. Or, the special interest might be to have the Ten Commandments posted in classrooms or open the school day with prayer. Superintendents (and other board members) are placed in a difficult position, as they might be required by law or procedure to withhold support of a given special interest. The problem is accentuated many times when the board member is allied with special interest groups in the community. A good example would be a board member who represents the interests of an antitax group. This board member may resist establishing a budget, setting a referendum for a new building, or negotiating with teachers. This type of resistance creates tension within the board, community, and with the superintendent.

Actually, the most serious board and superintendent conflict originates within the board itself. As boards become politicized, identifiable member coalitions emerge and clash with other board members. This is especially the case in large urban districts with boards divided by racial issues.

Conflict among board members often leads to each group trying to receive the superintendent's support for their position. In many conflicts there is little chance for the superintendent to remain neutral and efforts to do so result in alienation on the part of both groups. Internal board politics is a very serious problem in many districts, and there are usually no outside neutral parties available to mediate intraboard differences that are often disguised as superintendent and board conflict. Most likely a majority of superintendents leaving districts in midcontract do so because of intraboard conflict.

The outcome of board conflict, made public when the board votes on an issue, is usually a "split" board, meaning that consensus is very difficult to achieve. Generally, the public interprets the vote supporting a given proposition as reflecting the group of board members who support the superintendent. Some superintendents attempt to insulate themselves from what they consider to be unfair board criticism or interference. A frequent strategy that is used is to create a citizens' advisory group for the superintendent comprised of leaders in the community. Superintendents believe this group can provide protection in the event of conflict with the board or act to stop intraboard squabbling. In addition many of the advisory group members are in a position to be future board candidates, giving the superintendent potential allies in these possible board members.

The superintendent's actions in the community can be a flashpoint for board conflict. Even though superintendents are prohibited from participation in board elections, conflict sometimes arises when board members perceive the superintendent's encouraging a community member to run for a board position. Some board members are also suspicious of a superintendent who serves as chief spokesperson for the district. They perceive this as diminishing their political stature with constituent groups.

Putting Together a Superintendent/Board Relations Plan

Nearly all authorities indicate role conflict to be the leading cause of superintendent and board conflict. In order to reduce the likelihood of conflict it seems important that roles are clarified at the beginning of a superintendent's or a board's tenure. This is difficult to accomplish without a neutral third party facilitator and also because of increased board turnover in thousands of districts.

A potential source of assistance for board members and superintendents is in-service training offered to new board members by state school board associations. Districts that use a strategic planning process have a natural opportunity for the board and superintendent to mutually determine roles and responsibilities.

A majority of superintendents provide orientation sessions for new board members. This is another opportunity for the superintendent to clarify roles with at least one board member. Unfortunately, the politicization of boards has resulted in the increase of sensitive political issues, which makes superintendent and board relations very difficult. In a number of cases, superintendents never even have an opportunity to establish working relations with a board. More often board members are elected on a quasi-political platform of candidates who are sponsored by special interest groups. When this slate of candidates is elected, they immediately "buy out" the superintendent's contract in order to hire a person sharing their political views.

One problem contributing to a negative climate between superintendents and boards can usually be adjusted if not eliminated by the superintendent. This is the time required for board members to spend on district governance and activities. Many board members complain board membership is actually a second full-time job. This is nearly true in large urban districts with serious student achievement and political problems. Board time can be dramatically reduced by the superintendent and management team through careful examination of time demands placed on the board. The superintendent must know the board well enough to be able to screen out unnecessary paperwork and meetings. Needless hours of time can be eliminated if the board is willing to trust the superintendent and management team to perform this task.

Board members who give up family and even work time for board business often believe the superintendent and management team are foisting off decision-making and management responsibilities on the board. In districts where board members spend no more than five hours per week on board business, it is quite likely that superintendent and board relations function more effectively.

The relationship between a board and superintendent establishes a tone for the district environment. If the relationship is cooperative and harmonious district employees feel secure as roles are clarified, expectations are clear, and ambiguity does not cloud attempts to change and improve programs. Conflict between the superintendent and board creates tension inside the district and in the community. The situation discourages program innovation and reform, and deters constructive community involvement in the schools. It certainly can be fatal to any bond or tax rate referenda attempts. Unfortunately, many districts are not proactive in meeting the challenge of board and superintendent relations.

See also: Superintendent of Large-City School Systems; Superintendent of Schools.


Amundsen, Kristin, et al. 1996. Becoming a Better Board Member. Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Association.

Danzberger, Jacqueline; Kirst, Michael; and Usdan, Michael. 1992. Governing Public Schools: New Times, New Requirements. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Glass, Thomas. 1992. The Study of the American School Superintendency: America's Leaders in a Time of Reform. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Glass, Thomas. 2001. A Few Good Men and Women Need Apply: The Superintendent Applicant Crisis. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.

Glass, Thomas; Bjork, Lars; and Brunner, Cryss. 2000. The Study of the American School Superintendency 2000: A Look at the Superintendent in the New Millennium. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Institute for Educational Leadership. 1982. School Boards: Strengthening Grass Roots Leadership. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Kowalski, Theodore. 1999. The School Superintendent: Theory, Practice and Cases. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

McCurdy, David. 1992. Superintendent and School Board Relations. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Rogers, Joy. 1992. On Board: A Survival Guide for School Board Members. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa.

Smoley, Eugene. 1999. Effective School Boards: Improving Board Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Thomas E. Glass