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Small-town relationships depend on the hats
Jerry Boyer has spent more than 40 years behind the Boyer’s Cash Store counter. The Monument store started in 1927 by Boyer’s grandfather is the only shopping option within 20 miles. Boyer’s local roots run deep, but when Boyer was on the school board in the 1990s, neighbors would still boycott his store if they didn’t like his votes.
The school is the community center for the town of fewer than 150 people, putting the school board and superintendent under a small-town microscope. Boyer said their interactions set a tone for the town.
“When they are getting along, pretty much everyone else is getting along,” Boyer said.
Monument, a remote eastern Oregon town roughly between John Day and Pendleton, is getting along and has found stability after years of superintendent turnover. Board members credit having a superintendent with local knowledge along with open communication and mutual respect.
The relationship between a school board and a superintendent affects student outcomes and staff morale and retention, research shows. Small-town dynamics add extra challenges and rewards to developing lasting relationships. An occasional series from OREdNews, “Leaders Working Together,” is looking at Oregon school districts with strong leadership bonds.
Laura Thomas started teaching in Monument in 2007 after marrying a local fruit grower, Jeff Thomas. She watched five superintendents depart before she took the top job in 2019.
Five of the seven board members have children or grandchildren in the pre-K-12 school of 62 students, and she taught several of them. She is a neighbor to a board member, and her kids play with board members’ children. Thomas has three children: Josh, 12; Kaycee, 8; and Olivia, 5.
“I think it strengthens the relationship because you see a different side of people,” Thomas said.
Thomas said being a local meant she had an established relationship with the school board, but it required some adjusting.
“They knew me as a teacher but didn’t know me as an administrator,” she said.
Thomas credits OSBA-run training with making roles and responsibilities clear as her relationship to the board changed.
“They may not always agree with me, but when I say I think it is in the best interest of our staff or students, they trust me in that,” she said. “Everything is easier with strong and open communication, whether you agree or disagree.”
The board’s respect filters down to the staff.
Michele Engle teaches language arts, welding, wood shop and science for grades 7-12. She has seen some bad superintendent-school board relationships in her 26 years teaching at Monument.
“It’s painful for teachers,” she said. Teachers try not to bring those feelings into the classrooms, she said, but there were years the conflict made her question whether she wanted to stay at Monument.
The current relationship gives the teaching staff confidence in their work, she said, and it has Engle chipper about her job.
“It just seems so pleasant right now,” Engle said.
Board Vice Chair Chris Carlin joined the board the year after Thomas became superintendent. He has two children with hearing problems, so he interacts with the school more than most. That requires making the boundaries clear.
“When I go into (Thomas’) office, I tell her whether I’m wearing my parent hat or my school board hat,” Carlin said.
Board members and Thomas all talked about announcing which “hat” they were wearing to give context to conversations.
OSBA Board Development Director Steve Kelley said training is especially important in smaller communities to help distinguish when people are acting in their official roles.
Kelley frequently stresses that boards have collective authority but not individual authority, and that distinction becomes important in a small community where board members have more incidental access to a superintendent. He said people can sometimes unconsciously take advantage of relationships in school dealings.
“Most of the community knows the school board members and is going to be in their ears,” he said. “So they have to be even more careful, in my opinion, not to step on the superintendent’s toes.”
Board member Josh Hamilton was the board chair when Thomas was hired. Hamilton said a good board with a good superintendent has things looking bright now but the board can’t get complacent. If the board stops working well with Thomas, he said, a nearby district would quickly try to lure her away.
Board Chair Vonda Stubblefield has been on the board for 12 years. She went to school in Monument and worked for the school for 32 years. She drove the bus that Thomas’ husband, Jeff, rode to school, as well as for a current board member.
“When you know somebody that well, you have an advantage,” she said.
She said a common focus on students’ welfare smooths relationships.
“We don’t always agree, but we are always on the same page,” Stubblefield said.
School board member Liz Lovelock said she has strongly disagreed with Thomas and fellow board members but she feels heard and respected, and that helps.
“There is still back and forth even if we don’t completely agree,” she said.
Board member Casey Schultz said the board recently considered scaling back to five members because of the difficulty of filling seats in such a small community. Ultimately, they decided it was important to have more voices so that it’s harder for one viewpoint to drive the board agenda, he said.
Schultz credits Thomas for keeping the disparate personalities focused on student needs during meetings and steering them away from divisive political fights.
As student council president, senior Aubreianna Osborne is sometimes present at meetings. As a teacher’s kid, she also has heard a bit more about school board functions than most. When the school board is fighting over things that seem trivial to her, rather than important issues to her such as bullying in school, she trusts them less.
She likes the way current board members treat each other and the superintendent.
“Knowing they work well together,” she said, “that is reassuring that I go to a good school where they care about me.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Previous stories in the series:
New boss? Board-superintendent relationship’s importance same as with old boss
First blush of superintendent-school board relationship sets pattern for success