Felton Williams has been a member of the Long Beach Unified school board in California since 2004. During his 16-year tenure, he worked with one superintendent, Christopher Steinhauser, who led the 70,000-student district for 18 years and retired this year. Williams will follow Steinhauser’s footsteps and leave the board when his term ends next month.
Williams, a former university administrator with a background in business administration, spoke with Education Week about his experience in Long Beach, during which the district was a four-time finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education (it won in 2003), and chipped away at the graduation gap between Black and Hispanic students and their white peers. Graduation rates for students of color in Long Beach exceed the state average. And the district has been regarded as a bright spot among urban school systems and named in a 2012 study as among five of the world’s highest performing school systems.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Q: What initially motivated you to run for a seat on the school board?
The first African American [on the Long Beach school board], Barbara Smith, was going to step down, and the board has a history of members looking for their replacements. Keeping with that tradition, she asked me …whether I would consider running to replace her. … I told her I would think about it and I would get back to her. I thought about it, talked to people, and based on their advice, I decided to run.
Q: What are the essential ingredients for a good school board-superintendent relationship?
There is a book [What School Boards Can Do: Reform Governance for Urban Schools] by Don McAdams. He also did a lot of work to help school board members understand their roles. He was part of a project to help train urban school board leaders. Every year, they would take a cohort of school board members around the nation and talk about the role of school board members.
We got a lot of case studies. We looked at actual situations at various school districts around the nation. And the commonality we learned initially was that school board members develop policy—and that’s their primary function.
The superintendent runs the district. The board hires the superintendent. The board evaluates the superintendent. The superintendent is part of the board—he brings information to the board, and we act on it. We can act on things independently based on what our constituents want. But above all else, we have to understand that the superintendent runs the district.
What we saw in the training and in evidence was school board members getting involved in the superintendent’s job, and that’s where you begin to have problems: because school board members who are going over the head of the superintendent to staff and telling the staff what they want done compromise the relationship with the superintendent. What begins to happen then is the staff doesn’t know what to do. They don’t know who to listen to, and the superintendent really becomes nonfunctional in that regard because the line of communication becomes blurred. What you get in that situation is total dysfunction.
People have to understand the roles and responsibilities, and that is a key piece in a school district—that everybody understands their respective roles.
If you don’t like what the superintendent does or how that superintendent is doing a particular job, then, as a school board member, you have an opportunity to share that information with the superintendent on [their] evaluation. … But when you start getting involved in the superintendent’s job, that’s when problems begin to emerge in schools.
There is also a caveat to that. The caveat is that if there are constituents, they call you; they email you because they want things done. Let’s say I get a call from a parent about their child and someone in the school is giving that child a hard time. I have to respond to that.
Q: How would you respond in that situation?
Some school board members will go straight to that school, and all of a sudden, the school board member is dictating to staff what their concerns are and what they want done, undermining and bypassing the superintendent.
Normally, I’d go to the superintendent and share that with him. I’d say, ‘I’ve got a concern about X. Would you look into it?’ And that’s how I handle it. Those are board relations that you have to be able to establish. But it’s tricky; it’s very tricky. You don’t want it coming out that you did not respond to a concern from a constituent. You’ve got another problem there.
Now, I can’t say that the superintendent and I had a good working relationship [from the start]. It wasn’t that way. It was not a good relationship initially; it took time to build.
Q: I wanted to return to your statement that your relationship with the Superintendent Steinhauser was not initially a good one. Why? What made that relationship work over time?
We had some challenges initially. My background is in organizations. The superintendent comes from the classroom. That’s his orientation to the work: It’s the classroom; it’s not through management. It’s not through organizations.
One of the things I recommended when I came on the board was that we have a strategic plan because there wasn’t one. I asked about it, and another board member said, ‘We don’t need that.’ I just kept touting the importance of a strategic plan. The superintendent said he’d do it. Subsequently, I worked with him on other things, like processes or organization stuff.
The two school board members who were brought in from the [teachers’] union were really working to create havoc in the district. I basically said to [the superintendent], take your goals for the [district] for the year from the strategic plan, share those goals with the board, have the board validate your work, and that way you don’t have to deal with the issues that these two board members are giving you. He did. He would bring us his goals for the year, based on the strategic plan, we would vet the goals, and we would make any changes we saw, and give it back to him, and he would run with those goals. At the end of the year, we would evaluate him based on what he did.
But the trick was we already approved it upfront. We said, ‘Go with it.’ There was no recrimination from the board … when he came back and said, ‘Here are the results of my work.’
So just sharing things with him about process—like you need to move your public information officer next to you so that that individual has direct access to you to be able to share information about the district with the public.
Not long ago, it was ethnic studies. … We had conversations back and forth that this would change the dynamics for our kids by bringing this in. I said to him, our Black kids would change—not only our Black kids but our other kids.
We hired professors from Long Beach State to come in and teach ethnic studies on Saturdays. Four years later, we looked at the data. Exactly what I said to him happened.
But the thing is that over time, he trusted me, and that improved our relationship. Over time, things that I recommended that were approved convinced him that I was a reliable ally, and that changed our relationship.
Q: What advice would you share with a new school board member who may have been propelled to run by a single issue?
Your job is to create policy. The superintendent’s job is to run the district. That’s the primary information you give straight up. Then you try to set an example for them by your own actions.
Then point out opportunities where they can get some training. Some school boards have transitions where they will give workshops for incoming board members, so they get that information in a very direct way.
You try to give them a bigger overview of what schools are all about. You try to give them information about the role of education in our society as it was designed to do.
If you’ve got that kind of situation where a school board member can understand the lay of the land when it comes to schools, that’s even greater.
The book that Don McAdams put out is very straightforward on the role of school board members. And it takes a person right to it.
Q: Should [a background in education] be a requirement to serve on a school board?
It would be nice if you did [have it], but sometimes you need to come in with a different mindset because there are so many pieces to the education process—the business part, there is the political piece. And you need to have people with varied experiences. Bring in people with different experiences, different backgrounds, different ethnicities.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your tenure on the Long Beach Unified school board?
The one thing that has always been concerning to me is the response from people based on the color of my skin and how I was treated as a board member based on the color of my skin. It took a minute for people to get comfortable with me. Like anything else, some things do take work.
People are people. You have to establish your credibility. You don’t walk in with credibility as an African American, with all the stereotypes that are out there. You’ve got to show people that you can stand on your own, that you know what you are talking about. All the things that I had happen, I had to back it up with data. I had to go out and do the hard work. I just couldn’t say it. I had to work very hard to get people to the point where they saw it reflected in the research.
A lot of the critical stuff, maybe a white counterpart could say it and have it happen, but I couldn’t do it that way. I had to back up my stuff with data. I didn’t have a problem doing that because it helps establish your credibility that you can do something like that.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Advice From a Long-Serving School Board Member