Frequent communication makes superintendent-school board relationship hum
Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe is well-regarded around the state and was named the 2016 Oregon Superintendent of the Year, but the district almost lost her because of a bad relationship with a single school board member.
Good relationships with — and within — school boards are key to school districts’ success, according to some of Oregon’s best superintendents. School board members agree, saying it is all about communication.
Sipe blames herself for enabling a board member’s micromanaging that nearly drove her out of the northeastern Oregon district. She learned she must always deal with the board as a group to protect herself from personal agendas and to help the board do its work.
Now she responds to the whole board whenever she receives an individual question, and she always asks her questions of the whole board.
“It is so important to communicate equally,” Sipe said.
She said board members are the bosses but the superintendent must help new school board members understand how the process works.
Operating agreements that clearly define roles and responsibilities are essential to a smooth-functioning district, according to superintendents and board members.
Eugene’s Gustavo Balderas, the 2020 Oregon Superintendent of the Year, is a finalist for the National Superintendent of the Year. He values his school board as a conduit to the community’s ideas of what a successful student looks like. He said the board sets the direction and then his job is to implement their vision.
“They are the what,” Balderas said. “I am the how.”
Eugene School Board Chair Anne Marie Levis said Balderas meets with every board member, individually and in teams, every month. She said Balderas’ collaborative leadership has fostered a mutual respect for each other’s roles that allows an exchange of ideas.
“We have had lively conversations about issues,” Levis said. “I never take it as him saying he doesn’t agree. He just had a different perspective.”
Coquille’s Tim Sweeney, the 2019 Oregon Superintendent of the Year, said it all starts with trust.
“I’m always exceedingly honest with my board, even in the darkest of times,” he said. “I never want them to hear bad news from someone in the community instead of me first.”
It cuts both ways. He appreciates that his board checks with him first when they hear something troubling.
Sweeney said a unified front is important when facing his community just south of Coos Bay. For instance, on transgender bathroom issues, it helps to have the board say the superintendent is following the law, no matter individual feelings on the issue.
The superintendent should also avoid putting the board in difficult public spots. Bringing forward an idea in a public board meeting that is going to lose 4-3 generally indicates that the communication lines are breaking down and must be tended, Sweeney said.
School boards are an ever-shifting mix of veteran and new voices, though. They come from different backgrounds and are often elected on single issues.
Sweeney said he puts faith in the electoral process to convey the community’s wishes.
“They are the servants of the people,” he said. “I am the servant of the board.”
Sweeney tries to meet after an election with each new member about their hopes for the district. Keeping the students at the center of the work smooths a lot of relationship bumps.
“Board members get on the board to serve children,” he said.
North Clackamas’ Matt Utterback, the 2017 Oregon Superintendent of the Year, said he meets with every board member individually or in small groups before board meetings. He sees it as an opportunity to build relationships and air concerns.
The people who hired you could be gone in two or four years, he said. Helping new school board members is part of the job description.
Utterback often starts building relationships before a person is ever on the board. Clackamas tries to cultivate future board members with experiences such as a parent advisory group so they can understand more of the district’s inner workings.
Utterback said a successful superintendent helps guide a school board to have a clear mission, direction and strategic plan. Focusing the conversation on the strategic direction provides guardrails to keep from veering off into individual campaigns.
He said a good strategic plan not only tells a superintendent what to do but gives the superintendent permission to say no to things outside the plan.
OSBA Board Development Director Steve Kelley said boards must find the right balance between micromanaging and being a rubber stamp.
Boards set the strategic direction, he said, but they should do it with the help of the education professionals. Kelley likes to think of it as a partnership.
Kelley’s team has been teaching boards about collaborative governance, a leadership model that relies on everyone knowing their roles and responsibilities.
For example, the board sets a goal of improving reading scores. The superintendent then digs into data and lays out a strategic plan for training teachers, setting curriculum and measuring improvement. The board should review the plan and give the superintendent feedback on its alignment to the district’s strategic direction. The board shouldn’t be debating or directing the details of the plan. The board creates the strategic direction while the superintendent creates the strategic plan to achieve those priorities.
“The superintendent should be giving the board advice and counsel,” he said. “The board should never be giving the superintendent advice on day-to-day operations.”
That’s not to say superintendents don’t value their school board members’ individual viewpoints.
Umatilla’s Sipe said she gets to know her school board members’ passion areas. She taps into their knowledge in arenas such as law enforcement, Latino culture or business when formulating school plans.
Sipe tries to send her school board members an email every week that summarizes the major events as well as anything a board member might be asked about on the street. For an urgent matter, such as a gas leak, she will send them a group text message.
Sipe has led Umatilla since 2007. Bigger districts and statewide opportunities have come calling, but she has remained committed to Umatilla.
School board Chair Jon Lorence said the board has not tried to “hang onto our superintendent.” Instead, the board has tried to support Sipe’s passions and innovation while working closely with her.
“Honestly, it’s the board that keeps me here,” Sipe said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA