Urban Chiefs, Boards Agree on State of Relations

By Daniel Gursky — April 08, 1992 4 min read

Urban superintendents and school-board members may not always agree, but a new survey by the National School Boards Association shows that both groups identify similar factors as undermining their relations.

Both superintendents and board members ranked the lack of understanding of role differences, poor communications, and the personal agendas of some board members as the leading causes of unstable relationships, according to the survey, released here last week.

“It is clear that school-board members and superintendents need to better define their respective roles,’' said Arlene R. Penfield, the president of the N.S.B.A. “Personal agendas must be left at the boardroom door, and school boards must act in a unified manner.’'

“Urban Dynamics: Lessons in Leadership from Urban School Boards and Superintendents’’ is based on survey responses from 71 urban superintendents and 100 school-board members from urban districts.

The N.S.B.A. and its Council of Urban Boards of Education conducted the survey out of concern about the high turnover rate among urban superintendents. Last year, for example, about 30 school boards of the nation’s 140 largest districts replaced their superintendents, said Ulysses V. Spiva, the chairman of the urban-boards council.

The survey found that superintendents and school-board members agree that “micromanagement’’ by board members is a significant problem, although, not surprisingly, the superintendents see it as a bigger concern.

Board micromanagement, usually in the areas of personnel and budget, is the result of board members’ personal agendas or those of their constituents, the respondents said.

For example, they noted, board members may get involved with issues of teacher placement, complaints about teacher or administrator performance, or inadequate staffing levels.

Why Contracts Are Terminated

The survey also tried to address both groups’ perceptions of why superintendents’ contracts are not renewed. While board members said contracts were terminated because of dissatisfaction with the superintendent’s leadership skills or superintendent conflicts with the board, superintendents again raised the issues of micromanagement by the board and the personal agendas of individual board members.

School boards also need to clearly identify the qualities they want a superintendent to possess before they start recruiting candidates as well as to use more definite criteria in evaluating the top administrator, the superintendents said.

There was more agreement on the question of what essential leadership qualities superintendents should possess.

Both groups said they value the ability to manage people, promote and direct change, and communicate effectively more highly than such qualities as knowledge of education fundamentals, business acumen, or administrative skills.

Asked to identify what they consider to be the best preparation for their jobs, the superintendents rated experience as a central-office administrator in another urban district as slightly more important than having already served as an urban superintendent. And they said such central-office experience was much more valuable than a background as a superintendent of a smaller school system.

Heading Off Radical Change

By offering more than anecdotal evidence about urban school boards, N.S.B.A. officials said they hope the survey can help head off growing calls to drastically restructure the governance of urban education. Some school-board critics have even suggested eliminating the boards altogether, and some states, most notably New Jersey, have taken over troubled urban districts and replaced the school board with a state-appointed superintendent.

“In recent years,’' Ms. Penfield, the N.S.B.A.'s president, said, “too many legislators, governors, and educators have demonstrated a regrettable tendency to recommend sometimes radical changes to the governance structure of public education on the basis of, at best, incomplete and anecdotal evidence.’'

The survey results indicate that school boards need to emphasize their policymaking roles, Ms. Penfield added.

To help school boards, the N.S.B.A. will be seeking support from a consortium of academic institutions, business organizations, education groups, and foundations to increase public awareness and conduct more research and training.

In the survey, superintendents and school-board members suggested several additional topics for training that they said might improve their relations.

The school chiefs and board members said the N.S.B.A. should encourage systematic self-evaluation of school boards; offer information about goals-setting and strategic planning, particularly for first-year board members; develop programs for business and community groups to encourage outstanding candidates to run for the school board; and train board members in financial accountability.

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Urban Chiefs, Boards Agree on State of Relations