In my workshops for school board members, superintendents, and superintendent-aspirants – including the one I presented at the 2022 AASA National Conference on Education, I make a point of discussing the creative, productive role that board members can play in the external/stakeholder relations arena. I always expect to see some eye rolling when I mention engaging board members in strengthening their districts’ image, but less and less in recent years, as a growing number of board members and administrators recognize the importance of district image building and the powerful contribution board members can make in this arena if strongly supported by the superintendent and her senior administrators.
You shouldn’t ever forget that your school board members are in a unique position to make a significant contribution – both through their governing work and their non-governing, hands-on diplomatic and image building activities – to strengthening your district’s public image and building its relationships with critical constituents and stakeholders. Their position on the school board gives them unique visibility and clout. Not only are they perceived as important community leaders, but they are also seen as above the fray and less captive to the system they are responsible for governing than the superintendent and her administrative team. School board members also bring with them to the boardroom strong community contacts and affiliation networks and familiarity with the people who elected them. They are woven into the fabric of the community, rather than observing it from a distance, and this uniquely equips your board members to reach out, capturing minds and hearts on behalf of the public schools.
There’s another important reason to get your school board members meaningfully engaged in the external relations and image building function: the work tends to be interesting, enjoyable, and frequently ego satisfying – and hence a form of nonmonetary compensation for all the time they spend in the boardroom grappling with difficult and often negative issues. Experience has taught me that satisfied board members not only make more for more productive members of a district’s Strategic Governing Team, but also more reliable partners for the superintendent. I vividly recall chatting with a board member after she’d spoken about her district’s strategic goals and educational programs at a chamber of commerce luncheon meeting. I was aware that when she was initially approached by the superintendent to speak at the upcoming luncheon, she was very reluctant, doubting – as she shared with the superintendent – that she was experienced enough at the podium to do an adequate job of representing the district and her board colleagues. Of course, she was almost certainly also afraid she might be embarrassed in playing an unfamiliar role, and we all know that embarrassment sounds worse than death to many people.
To make what could be a long story short, the superintendent and his public information officer pitched in to prepare her for the speaking engagement, supplying her with talking points and a few PowerPoint slides, and even an opportunity to do a dry run in the superintendent’s conference room with several administrators and board members making up her audience. Well, the assistance payed off handsomely. She took the podium knowing her stuff inside-out, made a very interesting presentation, and comfortably answered several questions. She also tossed a few questions to the district public information officer, who was sitting at her side. When I chatted with her afterward, she was glowing. And, by the way, the glow didn’t wear off anytime soon, and it was obvious from her behavior in the ensuing months that she’d become a closer, more supportive colleague of the superintendent’s. Never doubt that this kind of nonmonetary compensation can help to cement the board-superintendent partnership.
This post is excerpted from Chapter 10 of Doug Eadie’s newest book, Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership: 11 Critical Questions You Need to Answer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). To order the book: https://www.dougeadie.com/store/.