School leadership ‘marriage’ influences board expectations for new superintendent
Beaverton Superintendent Don Grotting (left) and school board Chair Tom Colett chat before meeting with teachers at the start of a recent school day. Colett and Grotting have worked closely this school year, and Colett says that is coloring the board’s search for the next superintendent after Grotting retires. (Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The superintendent-school board relationship is frequently compared to a marriage. So it struck an emotional blow when Beaverton School Board member Becky Tymchuk learned that her board’s superintendent bond was coming to an end.
Superintendent Don Grotting is retiring at the end of this school year. Tymchuk, who had been board chair during much of Grotting’s tenure, was depressed after she found out and considered leaving the school board.
“We’d gotten the dance down,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine doing this work with anyone else.”
But her board has entered a version of the dating ritual now as the district interviews candidates, and the new relationship’s possibilities have her excited about staying.
The relationship between a school board and a superintendent affects student outcomes and staff morale and retention, research shows. When a school district loses a respected, successful and long-serving superintendent, the transition to a new leader is fraught with relationship perils. An occasional series from OREdNews examining school board-superintendent dynamics, “Leaders Working Together,” looks at school districts in various stages of strong relationships.
Grotting became the Beaverton superintendent in 2016 after leading at David Douglas (where he was the 2014 Oregon superintendent of the year), Nyssa and Powers. He said the interactions with boards changed with size but one thing remained true: “If you’re doing it right, you develop some close professional relationships and some friendships.”
Larger districts tend toward more businesslike interactions, he said, but those small communities taught him the value of creating some family atmosphere and the need to sometimes engage with board members outside professional settings.
Grotting said he has also learned that it is important to get to know why school board members ran for the position so he can understand their interests and how they can work together.
Effective communication that keeps everyone on the same page is the cornerstone of those relationships, Grotting said. Superintendents need to understand school board members have to be responsive to community and parents and they need information so they don’t get blindsided, he said.
School Board Chair Tom Colett puts frequent communication and constant availability among the attributes the board loves about Grotting and seeks in the next superintendent. Colett, who became board chair in July, talks to Grotting nearly every night and most weekends as they have faced the second year of the pandemic.
In another sign of a strong board-superintendent marriage, Colett and Grotting said pandemic-related stresses have brought the board and superintendent closer together, rather than tearing them apart.
Colett said Grotting has modeled for the board what a good relationship should look like, helping them to know what to look for in the next superintendent. Colett acknowledges that the next superintendent will inevitably have different strengths and weaknesses.
“You don’t want to have a relationship where you are looking back at the previous relationship,” said Colett.
Grotting, Colett and Tymchuk all said their relationship works because the board and superintendent stay in roles clearly defined by district policies and agreements. Colett and Tymchuk expect some responsibilities to shift a bit with a new superintendent, but they say their work with Grotting has laid down a framework that should stay the same.
OSBA Board Development Director Steve Kelley said the frequency of board-superintendent interactions often decreases when they have been working together a long time because they know each other’s tendencies and preferences. With a new superintendent, boards need to be ready to collaborate and engage more to establish the new relationship’s foundation, he said.
“Like any good marriage, it starts with good communication,” Kelley said.
Kelley said that school board members who have had great superintendents have to be careful to avoid pushing the new leader into the previous leader’s mold. Instead, they should examine what made the previous relationship work.
“Any time there is a change, the culture is going to stay in place,” he said. “Good boards, successful school districts, pay attention to their culture.”
The culture will also sustain a district’s momentum during a superintendent’s final year when the temptation can be to start thinking about the next direction. Grotting said he is doing his best work because he has maximum experience and the board has remained supportive and engaged with him.
Tymchuk said board training before the transition is important to help members understand how to hire a district CEO and to get that relationship started right.
As Tymchuk interviews potential new partners, candidates’ questions have made clear they are also considering the board’s values and qualities for a relationship.
“If they are worth their salt, they are looking for stories of whether we are suing one another or going after the superintendent,” she said.
With the new superintendent, Tymchuk expects some redrawing of power lines and adjusting of priorities. She said the district’s policies and signed agreements with the superintendent will create boundaries. Then it just comes down to lots and lots of communication.
“If you can’t figure out what the other person needs, it’s going to be rough,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Previous stories in the series:
Small-town relationships depend on the hats
New boss? Board-superintendent relationship’s importance same as with old boss
First blush of superintendent-school board relationship sets pattern for success