First blush of superintendent-school board relationship sets pattern for success
McMinnville Superintendent Debbie Brockett and School Board Chair Carson Benner hash out issues early Wednesday, Oct. 6. The pair meet before every school board meeting to go over the agenda and any other possible discussion items. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Just a month into McMinnville Superintendent Debbie Brockett’s tenure, the mask mandate debate blew up. Soon after, Brockett says, she was approached to sign a Yamhill County petition for more local school control.
She declined. Brockett had recently moved to the community from Nevada. She didn’t feel ready to take a public stand, but she was also nervous about hanging back in a region where anti-mask sentiment was strong.
Much to her relief, the school board accepted her decision and expressed support for her focus on keeping students in school. For Brockett, it laid a foundation for a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.
A good relationship between a school board and its superintendent is integral to a high-functioning school board, which in turn translates into a strong school district with increased student success, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards’ Lighthouse study.
Relationships change, though, as superintendents and school board members move on or gain experience. An occasional series from OREdNEWS, “Leaders Working Together,” will look at Oregon school districts in various stages of successful relationships.
“Regardless of experience, you have to start that relationship at the beginning,” said OSBA Board Development Director Steve Kelley. “You have to build that relationship from the ground up.”
OSBA provides board development training that administrators and school board members praise as enormously helpful in building the relationship. First and foremost, both sides must have a good understanding of their roles and responsibilities, Kelley said.
The board governs, and the superintendent manages. The board sets the strategic direction. The superintendent controls the policy implementation.
When Maryalice Russell, who had been McMinnville’s superintendent since 2002, retired this year, the district lost a successful and unifying leader. In 2013, she was the Oregon Superintendent of the Year and a finalist for the national superintendent of the year.
From 2009 to 2019, the district’s graduation rate improved from 75% to 91%, and historically underrepresented student groups’ graduation rate has surged in recent years to an even better 92%. Leadership consistency has been key to the steady improvement.
Brockett has big shoes to fill. She said it helped that she was able to walk and talk with Russell for a week before slipping them on. The superintendent-board relationship was a significant part of their discussions about the job.
Brockett and School Board Chair Carson Benner agree that Russell was instrumental in developing protocols and guidelines that kept both sides in their lanes, easing the relationship.
Benner said Russell helped create an environment that attracted school board members whose main focus was on students’ needs.
Brockett said McMinnville board members’ clear understanding of their role was an enticement to take the job.
“They truly do give me my space to do my job and work with me as I have to make difficult decisions,” Brockett said. “Because they do their job and they allow me to do mine, we get twice the amount of work done for the betterment of kids.”
For instance, McMinnville uses a robust subcommittee structure to explore issues and hash out policy disagreements without violating public meeting laws. Consent agenda items are known before the public meeting so that there are no surprise discussions to overwhelm other issues and drag meetings late into the night.
“We want a boring meeting because we have already sorted it out,” said Benner. It helps the relationship with the superintendent if meetings don’t become interrogations, he said.
Brockett said the board’s visible respect for her in board meetings encourages the community to also show her respect and trust.
Brockett has carried on many of Russell’s protocols, but she is also setting the tone for her own relationship. She has increased communication because she is new to the board members, and she offers a weekly email briefing to the board so they don’t get surprised by hot education topics.
Brockett is working on getting to know members individually, so they know her style and she knows their ways. For instance, she believes in providing information, but she doesn’t want to seem disrespectful by overexplaining things longtime board members might know.
During the summer, the superintendent attended an OSBA board member training with her board’s new members.
“It was powerful that I heard what they were being trained so we were on the same page and using the same language,” she said.
Janis Braich, who is in her 23rd year on the school board, said that when the board hired Russell, they were looking for someone to bring change. With Brockett, the board was looking for someone to continue the district’s growth and lead them to the next step, Braich said.
Braich said the McMinnville board has not always agreed, but a core focus on the children’s best interests has kept them cohesive. She said it is hard to hire a superintendent who will work well with the board if it is divided by members with political agendas trying to micromanage schools.
“It really comes down to clear communication between the superintendent and the board right from the beginning,” she said, “setting up those parameters of what is your job and what is our job.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA