Clear expectations build new superintendent-school board relationships
The Eugene School Board picked a winner with Gustavo Balderas, the 2020 Oregon Superintendent of the Year and a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year.
School Board Chair Anne Marie Levis said Balderas was a clear fit in the interview process. He had the values and passion the board was looking for, and he showed a systems way of thinking that could implement innovation across the district.
But success does not come just from hiring the right person.
Successful districts are built on strong superintendent-school board relationships, and the foundations are laid in the hiring process and early days of the job, according to school leaders. Districts around Oregon, big and small, rural and urban are looking for new superintendents. Some of Oregon’s top superintendents and the school board members who picked them shared some of their secrets for creating the right fit.
Balderas said a key to his success was working closely with his board from the beginning in 2015 to create a strategic district plan and lay out board expectations.
Levis said the board has worked hard to deliver clear expectations and define what success looks like while keeping their fingers out of running the district. In turn, she said, the board can offer Balderas community feedback he doesn’t always get while aligning goals and strategic plans.
“We understand his role; he understands our role,” she said. “We respect each other.”
Tim Sweeney was the Butte Falls superintendent before being hired in 2010 by Coquille, a district south of Coos Bay. He said he received some good advice from the Butte Falls school board chair at his first board meeting: You work for us. Everybody else in the district works for you. Live by those rules and you will be fine.
Sweeney has kept that in mind, and he was named the 2019 Oregon Superintendent of the Year.
Sweeney recommended school boards look for passion and work ethic above all. The interview process goes both ways, though. Sweeney said superintendent candidates should know where school board members’ passions lie and what they want fixed.
Sweeney said that if a board is looking for a superintendent to clean house, sometimes that needs to wait while the new person builds up credibility. In some communities, the local principal has more clout than the superintendent, Sweeney said.
Board members and superintendents spoke of finding the right “fit,” but that can be a diversity trap. Language around comfort level with a candidate or community values can carry coded expectations that weed out people who come from different cultures.
“’Good fit’ comes with a massive amount of implicit bias,” said Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus President Bill Graupp.
Board members who have not had a lot of experience dealing with people from different backgrounds might not feel a connection to some candidates.
Graupp, a North Marion School Board member, recommends setting up a process and a clear set of goals beforehand to screen out unconscious bias.
All candidates should face the same questions, such as their position on cultural awareness, so the board can give them a fair assessment.
“You have to take off the blinders, even if you don’t know you have them,” Graupp said.
New superintendents also should cultivate relationships with their board members of color, Graupp said. Board members with backgrounds different from the superintendent offer insights into student challenges and needs.
A diverse board can be a selling point for superintendents’ trying to attract teachers of color, who benefit all students. People of color in administrative offices or on the school board set leadership examples for students and announce that this is a community that values the contributions of people of color, Graupp said.
Cultural differences can disrupt a new relationship between school boards and superintendents. A facilitator in the early days can ease the transition and show a good will commitment, Graupp said.
OSBA Board Development Director Steve Kelley enthusiastically supports nurturing the beginnings of a superintendent-board relationship. OSBA’s Executive Search Services includes a two-year guarantee if the board commits to 6-12 hours of joint training with the superintendent.
OSBA’s transition program helps create a board operating agreement and a robust evaluation process so both parties know what their expectations are.
“You need to know what your role is to stay in your lane,” Kelley said.
Beaverton School Board Chair Becky Tymchuk said that during the hiring process, the board needs to make sure a candidate is willing to pick up the plans in place as well as offer a vision for the future.
Beaverton hired Don Grotting in 2016. He had been the 2014 Oregon Superintendent of the Year at David Douglas School District.
Tymchuk said the board defined what district issues needed to be addressed and what they wanted in a superintendent before the interview process. Then they had to agree to stick to getting what they wanted.
The board and the superintendent should agree on the district’s top five priorities, even if not exactly in the same order, she said.
Tymchuk said the board was also aware that candidates would be interviewing them as well. Boards need to understand that potential superintendents have likely done their homework about the reputation of the school, community and board.
Fractious school boards that are unable to present a unified vision or defense of their superintendent on contentious issues can turn off potential candidates.
Tymchuk said school boards should remember they are building a reputation that will affect their next hire. When a board is interviewing a candidate, it’s too late to change the stories surrounding a district but the board can still demonstrate how they work together now, she said.
Eugene’s Balderas said a team effort from the beginning is essential to improving student achievement data.
“This is not me work,” he said. “This is we work.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
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