By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
With all the talk right now about new state mandates for local school board evaluations of superintendents, here’s a prediction that at least one measure of top district administrators won’t change.
It may not be explicitly listed as a measure of accountability. And it’s unlikely to matter whether boards of education choose the in-development Kentucky Department of Education-backed model, the tweaked KSBA version or an evaluation tool entirely of local creation.
Doubters may want to review news articles about unpleasant superintendent departures, from contract nonrenewals to retirements. More than a few cite a breakdown in communications among the district leadership as a key – if not overriding – factor in the decision by one or both sides to effect a change.
So as local boards and the KDE steering committee work on their superintendent evaluation options for 2014 and beyond, some points can be made for formally building communications among district leaders into the matrix of expectations of the state’s 173 district CEOs.
Care and feeding of the board’s information base
One observation of school boards’ annual superintendent evaluations is that happy board members frequently are in-the-loop board members. Have you ever heard or read of a superintendent not being offered a new contract or otherwise departing a district under fire who was praised for sharing too much information with the board?
Another issue that comes up a lot during board meetings is how the superintendent has – or has not – responded to a single board member’s request for information. Sure, some board members’ requests may be seen as tedious and unproductively time-consuming. On the other hand, what employee gets to pick and choose which of the boss’s questions will be answered and which will can be ignored?
And there is much to be said about the value of what I call “watching the boss’s back door.” This means no surprises for the board, or at least reducing the amount of unexpected news that comes to the board from sources other than the superintendent. This can include anything from alerts about incidents at schools and issues coming up at board meetings to non-routine sharing on test scores, building projects and management decisions made by the superintendent.
A well-informed board is much more likely to be a positive partner in good times and tough times alike.
Without a question, a school board that sets an expectation about quality, effective communications by its superintendent must practice what it preaches.
That means being willing to have one-to-one conversations about concerns and problems rather than saving them up to air publicly at board meetings. It’s not about hiding issues from the public; it is about being focused on resolutions rather than exhibitions.
It means being clear about information boards want on a regular or as-needed basis. If your board hired a mind-reading superintendent, well and good. But as the KSBA evaluation model emphasizes, boards should set expectations up front, review them during the year and then evaluate attainment at the end of the process.
The Last Word
As KDE officials have said repeatedly, the new mandates on superintendent evaluations center around “conversations” among district leaders on three issues: academic targets, budget management and facility and educator resource needs. Conversations are explicitly about communications – but not just twice a year.
Ask about a successful, longtime relationship between a school board and superintendent, and you’re probably going to hear about strong, well-established processes for exchanging information.
Even if it’s not in the written superintendent evaluation plan, good communications – or the lack thereof – is going to be evident in that final assessment of met or unmet expectations.
And that’s a message worth getting out.