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New boss? Board-superintendent relationship’s importance same as with old boss
Superintendent Terry Augustadt (from left) and school board members Amy Johnson, Jim Smith, Brandon Floeck, Roxanne Ericson and Shad Turner take their masks off for a quick photo after the Nov. 8 school board meeting. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Terry Augustadt worried that the Marcola School Board would not like his “rocking the boat” when he became superintendent in July 2021.
Augustadt believes in systems to drive accountability and improvement, but not every staff member embraced his new procedures. With COVID-19 stresses also playing a role, he had to replace six teachers and counselors after last school year, a significant turnover in a staff of less than 40.
High turnover can set off alarm bells, and community members for the rural school northeast of Eugene grumbled. Some of those teachers had taught school board members’ children, but Augustadt said his board support never wavered.
“As long as I looped them in and kept them updated, we could weather any storm,” he said.
The relationship between a school board and a superintendent affects student outcomes and staff morale and retention, research shows. But relationships change as superintendents gain experience and the school board makeup shifts. An occasional series from OREdNEWS, “Leaders Working Together,” is looking at Oregon school districts in various stages of strong relationships.
Augustadt is navigating the changing dynamics as he gains experience and his board’s leadership changes.
High school teacher Kelli Fisher, the union president, said Augustadt’s changes ruffled some feathers, but the shared focus on children by the school board, superintendent and staff have helped smooth things out.
Fisher said staff felt free to relay concerns to the superintendent, and they were confident he would take them to the school board and be heard. They also trust the school board’s policies will be worked through the superintendent, she said.
“It’s a sense of security, not just for my job but for happiness in my job,” Fisher said.
She said the stability of the superintendent-school board relationship gave her the confidence to implement ambitious education ideas. She said that relationship is reflected in the students, as well.
“Our kids get along and that starts with our school board,” she said.
OSBA Board Development Director Steve Kelley stresses during training that school boards’ relationships with their superintendents are integral to how districts function and their students’ success.
He said school boards and superintendents need to make a conscious effort to build and maintain relationships. But it’s also important to remember that a superintendent’s relationship is with the board as a whole and not just the board chair.
Former School Board Chair Jim Smith led the search for a new superintendent, but with the clear-eyed understanding that his role as school board chair was temporary. Part of the process was to find a superintendent who shared the vision of the community and the board, he said.
“We provide direction,” he said. “The superintendent decides how we will get there.”
He sought community and staff input because he knew their involvement with the selection process would bolster the new leader’s authority. Fisher said that outreach helped Augustadt’s acceptance.
Smith, the longest serving member of the Marcola School Board, encouraged Augustadt to lean on him in that first year. Augustadt had just come to the district a year earlier as the elementary principal.
“My job was to get the superintendent comfortable,” Smith said. “I don’t know everything, and I don’t expect him to know everything. … But I do expect him to do his research.”
Smith said the superintendent and the board chair roles can be lonely, and he tried to act as a sounding board without telling Augustadt what to do.
Smith credits Augustadt with understanding the school board’s role.
“Our superintendent knows the board’s job is a balancing act between representing the community and supporting the school staff and superintendent in educating students,” Smith said.
Augustadt said he appreciated the historical perspective.
“I recognize that my board members are long legacy folks in this community,” Augustadt said. “I give them respect if they say something has to be brought to my ear.”
Smith also liked Augustadt’s direct and personal communication. Augustadt meets regularly with individual members, and he said he tries to have a private conversation as soon as he sees friction points to keep them from festering.
Augustadt and the board said the mutual respect and united front helped calm the community on hot button issues.
Marcola’s board-superintendent relationship started strong, but relationships evolve, especially when a new school board chair steps in.
Roxanne Ericson had been on the board for four years when she became chair this summer. She already had a relationship with Augustadt as a parent when he was the elementary principal, but they both had to recalibrate a bit because she is now his boss.
She said OSBA training during the superintendent search has helped, especially a document they created of expectations for and of the board.
Ericson said bumps with Augustadt have been part of the learning process, but the relationship he has with board members and his commitment to the children has helped carry them all through.
“One of the strengths of our board, we have all been very trusting and acknowledging that ‘Wow, sorry we threw you into this miss,’” she said.
Ericson credited OSBA training with helping to build board interpersonal relationships that are also important to the superintendent. They have worked to assure they support him with one voice and no one is working a personal agenda.
Ericson said the board is constantly conscious of not wanting to put Augustadt in a difficult situation that might damage the district, staff or students.
“We all have kids or grandkids in the district, so it’s very personal to us,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA