A Delta Force of Leadership
By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
I am particularly interested in school wellness, a notion that healthy conditions in education can be influenced by the structures through which we operate, the processes through which we make decisions, and the people with which we collaborate. In consideration of that, I’m currently examining the notion of what I call a delta force of leadership, a factor of school wellness that is inherent in the relationship among the School Superintendent, Board of Education President, and the School Board of Education as a whole.
When a symbiotic, complementary relationship of leadership exists among the three, strength is accentuated, and the school trends toward wellness. When not, wellness wanes. Possibly an old “three-legged stool” metaphor would suffice. Please note that no preeminence is intended with respect to the positioning of each on the model presented.
Let’s begin examining the notion of how these three leadership components interrelate with a brief job description for each pertaining to school leadership:
Boards of Education set policy, establish budgets, and hire and fire the Superintendents in school districts. Oftentimes, they have the final say in all decisions of personnel. In many cases, School Boards have plenary power to determine the “what” of the education that will take place for the children of a given community. State mandates and legislation, of course, provide parameters for this empowerment. Board members serve as conduits for community conversation and concern about the schools and reflect the sentiments of divergent stakeholders regarding the general direction that education should take. Boards of Education are empowered to act when they meet as a group in public to do business and have a quorum.
Superintendents carry out the policies of Boards of Education through administrative regulations to ensure the proper and prudent management and leadership of a school district. They oversee the general “how” of the education that will take place for the children of a given community. State mandates and legislation have recently provided more prescriptive guidance regarding their job descriptions. Superintendents serve as CEO’s of educational organizations, large and small; they are charged with being “the face” of the public schools in any given community. Responsible for the educational achievement of each and every staff member and student of the district, Superintendents are held accountable by all. They are empowered to act for optimal operation of schools and on behalf of curricular excellence of the educational program.
Board Presidents serve in a dually elected role in many cases – elected at large by the populace to serve as a member of the Board of Education and elected by fellow Board Members to serve as their leader in the Board’s business. Oftentimes, the Board President chairs Board of Education meetings and has responsibility for determining what is to be discussed on each meeting’s agenda. During Board Meetings, the Board President oftentimes takes a more active role in responding to community comments and concerns and guides both discussions and votes on actionable items on the docket. Board Presidents oftentimes have more frequent communication with the Superintendent regarding school operations or situations that may present themselves at the Board level, and they more often shoulder the burden of responsibility for controversial actions that Board may take, those that run counter to special interests and specific community groups.
In considering how these three leadership entities work together to advance school wellness, I would like to offer four components that I see as key to a symbiotic, complementary relationship: Trust, Deference, Assurance, and Humility.
Trust: Superintendents must trust that members of the Board of Education are a reflection of the community and are empowered to articulate the direction a community desires its school system to advance. Boards are entrusted to set sound policy in line with contemporary community standards. Once accomplished, however, Boards must be willing to trust that their Superintendents will design appropriate administrative regulations to carry out such and have the capabilities and efficacy to do just that. Superintendents need to trust that the Boards can prudently design the “what” of the educational experience; Boards must trust that Superintendents can effectively and efficiently carry out the “how.” Boards must trust that their Board Presidents and Superintendent communicate often regarding the interfacing of the “what” and the “how” so that every single discussion of impact need not reflect itself on each month’s Board Agenda.
Deference: Boards must be willing to defer to the judgment of Superintendents, in consultation with their Board Presidents, on complex operational issues when language of policy is vague or absent. The responsiveness of the district will suffer otherwise. Conversely, Superintendents must be willing to defer to Board Presidents and their Boards of Education in deciding to what degree Board Meetings become venues for community conversation. After all, different communities have differing expectations of how much will be shared at Board Meetings and under what conditions the business of the Board will resemble more a “Town Hall.” Some communities expect more lively and open Board Meetings; others are more subdued and business-like. In either case, however, deference must be given to a Superintendent’s wishes that his administrative staff is not cross-examined in public and that concerned stakeholders should follow appropriate chain-of-command for the redress of grievances.
Assurance: Board Presidents must give assurances to Superintendents that management authority will not be in question if frequent communications take place between the two. Superintendents must, in turn, give assurances to Board Presidents that their inquiries will not be construed as micro-managerial, in that a partnership needs to be forged with continual communication, especially when circumstances have potential for reaching Board level. Both Board Presidents and Superintendents must give assurances to the full Board that in instances where tough decisions must be made, they will seek the advice of legal counsel on matters that have litigious potential. Board members must give assurances, conversely, that Superintendents can contact counsel with Board support. Board Members must give assurances that they understand their roles and will not use individual status to influence faculty and staff, acting in their official capacity only when in posted committees or meetings of the whole. Superintendents must offer assurances to Board Presidents and Board Members that ALL are welcome in the schools at anytime, yet Board Members should offer assurances that they will first report to the office as would any other visitor if they are on campus.
Humility: Each party must realize that he/she cannot do an effective job leading without continual communication and support from the others. The power of this delta force is rich only when all are promoting wellness. Board members must recognize that in many cases, they do not have the specialized skills or advanced degrees to serve as Superintendents and that they represent the community at large, a body that is not, in and of itself, infallible. Superintendents must humbly realize that they do not know the sentiment of a community as well as Board Members, who were directly elected to reflect the viewpoints and passions of those who offered their support. Superintendents must also understand that at times, in order to go fast, one must go slow through dialogue, deliberation, and deep discussion, so that better decisions can be made. Board Presidents may want to consider that it is both an honor and a privilege to serve in a dually elected role and must continually work to balance positively the needs of diverse constituencies – the Board Members and the public on one hand and the Superintendent and staffs on the other. Oh yes ... and children's needs play a role. Board Presidents must accept with humility the responsibility for guiding continual collaboration and an interdependence necessary to foster, promote, and protect a quality education for all.
Trust, deference, assurance, and humility among your Superintendent, Board President, and Board of Education: A delta force of leadership promoting school wellness in your district or corporation.
Dr. Ryan Donlan is a former School Superintendent who enjoyed a positive, symbiotic relationship with his Board President and School Board for 11 years. He offers scholarship and consulting on promoting positive human relations and school improvement, toward more productive educational outcomes on behalf of children, staff, schools, and communities. He can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please offer your thoughts and responses to this article.