When a rocky relationship between a superintendent and school board winds up in court, it can lead to the awkwardness of divorce—akin to a feuding couple living together, with their children stuck in the middle.
As the relationship breaks down, it’s pretty common for superintendents to hit the escape hatches in their contracts, through resignation or retirement, or for members to get voted on or off school boards as tensions air out.
What’s more uncommon, though, are sitting superintendents who sue the school board members who can hire, and in most cases, fire them. Conversely, it’s rare for a sitting member, or an entire board, to sue a superintendent.
When it does happen, it usually doesn’t end well, according to a review by Education Week of such legal cases over the past decade.
The most recent case is unfolding in the Howard County, Md., district, where Superintendent Renee Foose has sued the board in a dispute that is both professional and personal. The suit, filed in January in Howard County Circuit Court, alleges that school board members passed a series of resolutions that aimed to “strip the superintendent of her lawful authority” since the newly elected board was sworn in December. The conflict has extended to Foose’s personal life, as she also claims in the suit that she has faced discrimination because she is gay.
Cynthia Vaillancourt, the president of the Howard County board, said in an email that the board has turned legal matters over to its lawyers and will continue to work with Foose. But Vaillancourt acknowledged that the suit has fostered a “challenging” working situation, and she characterized Foose as trying to usurp the board’s governance abilities.
Point of No Return
Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and a former superintendent of the Fairfax County district in Virginia, said that generally, it’s a bad idea for superintendents to go public with concerns about the board, which employs them.
“When that happens, relations are undoubtedly at the point where the superintendent will be making an exit soon,” said Domenech, who was not referring to any specific case.
For now, Foose and Howard County’s board have to constantly come back to the table to work—an indefinite situation thanks to the superintendent’s contract and stipulations rarely seen in state education law but enshrined in Maryland. Foose is in the first year of a new four-year contract, after already serving in the post for the past four years when she had a majority of support on the board.
In an interview, Foose said she has no plans to back down from her position.
In Maryland, contracts for superintendents must be four years at a time, according to Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state education department. Many states allow board members to simply tack on another year or two if they are satisfied with the superintendent.
While most states give local boards authority to fire superintendents, Maryland law mandates that only the state superintendent can terminate them. The state chief has five grounds for doing so: immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency, and/or willful neglect of duty. Maryland law does allow boards to negotiate separation agreements.
Reinhard said it’s unclear when that law went into effect for the state, which has 24 school systems.
Even if a state allows its school boards more liberty to get rid of a superintendent, involving the courts can certainly protract the separation process. Education Week found a handful of such cases in recent years as reported by local media.
In 2013 in Ohio, Randy Stepp, the superintendent of the Medina City district, sued the board for allegedly defaming him. Board members then moved to fire Stepp, which prompted the then-suspended superintendent to file a second suit to halt his dismissal. Stepp eventually submitted his resignation nearly a year later in the aftermath of a state auditor’s report that found he had misspent school funds, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.
In South Carolina in 2014, Vashti Washington, the superintendent of the Jasper County district, sued school board member Randy Horton for defamation. While the court battle largely played out in the press, Washington and Horton had to work together for nearly a year and a half until the suit was settled and the superintendent resigned.
Leadership experts say discord between superintendents and boards can hijack the district’s political climate, and that can have a chilling effect as employees may feel pressure to choose sides.
In the absence of “marriage counseling,” Domenech of the AASA quipped, there are intermediaries who can help mediate disputes, such as lawyers and school board and superintendent associations.
The National School Boards Association offers a guidebook for members to help navigate the process of building and maintaining relationships with schools’ chiefs.
Thomas Gentzel, the executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, said board members must carefully weigh their First Amendment rights and speaking out on behalf of their communities against the superintendent, especially in public. Board members should always confer with their district’s legal counsel while in sensitive conflicts with the superintendent in order to safeguard their behavior from putting the school system at risk of further litigation, he said.
That’s not to say that board members and superintendents who are always in harmony is ideal either, Gentzel said.
The best board-superintendent relationships are those in which people can respectfully disagree and debate issues. What’s vital when there is disagreement, he said, is for board members and superintendents to monitor how serious a rift is before allowing it to turn into an unbridgeable gulf.
“You’re not dysfunctional if you disagree. You’re dysfunctional if you can’t make a decision,” Gentzel said. “Disagreement can be healthy if it’s done in the right environment.”
Library Intern Briana Brockett-Richmond contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as After a Feud, Hard for Schools Chiefs and Boards to Make Up