Superintendents and board members must establish regular board communication, instill transparency, and build strong communication strategy to create the most effective, healthiest school boards.
Defining board roles, navigating conflict, creating transparency, establishing meeting norms, and recognizing the value of individual contributions are all part of establishing and sustaining effective board communication.
At the helm of that strategy is a busy superintendent, charged with steering board governance, meeting milestones, and demonstrating progress and success. A five‐year survey conducted by the American Association of School Administrators shows that most superintendents (62 percent) “spend three hours or less per week in direct communication with board members.” How can superintendents better prioritize communication efforts, build healthy boards, and ensure they’re communicating about the right things?
For more insight, we spoke with Steve Barker, director of strategic planning for the Georgia School Boards Association and the former superintendent for Coweta County Schools. Barker, who was named Georgia’s 2018 Superintendent of the Year, touched on some of the most important methods for establishing strong board communication and board best practices.
Here are the 6 Essential Tips Barker recommends for effective board communication.
1) Define Roles
How important is role definition in establishing effective board communication?
Barker explains that having a clear understanding of roles is vital to the effectiveness and contributions of each board member and to the overall activity, progress, and success of a board. When roles are clearly understood by each board member, it helps everyone understand what they are each there to do, and what they are collectively trying to accomplish, he explained. School boards are elected bodies, and people serve for a variety of reasons. Board members represent a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives, and while board members typically want to serve for all the right reasons, many times they need a better understanding of their roles.
“There is a learning curve,” Barker said. Key to addressing that learning curve is a consistent and thorough board orientation and training process for each board member. A clear code of ethics should be communicated to the board and each board member should understand existing goals and a timeline for existing board strategy milestones and what role they can – and can’t – play in driving board progress.
For more perspective and a comprehensive take on board roles, read the eBook The Essential Guide to High Performing Boards.
2) Create Transparency
How do you establish transparency and suitable communication expectations for the governance team?
“Transparency is critical. Honesty is critical,” said Barker, who served as an assistant principal, principal, district administrator and superintendent during his 30-year career in public education.
Transparency and honesty are about keeping everyone informed with the same, accurate information, he explained. The superintendent keeps the board informed and each board member is given access to the same information. The superintendent also ensures that principals, teachers, and parents are informed about board activities and key school or district matters. Importantly, there is a clear and open process by which people can share problems, questions, or grievances with the board and a clear process for how a response is delivered.
“It really is about how you decide to do business,” Barker added. To be effective, transparent and honest communication is vital and is truly about establishing a set of protocols and principles for communication and adhering to good practices.
To learn more about what is expected of a board governance team, watch the webinar Leading the Learning – The Changing Role of Today’s Governance Team.
3) Prioritize Communication
How import is it to prioritize communication to the board?
One of the most difficult lessons a superintendent learns is how much time is required to effectively lead the board. Sometimes a superintendent will come from a position as a former school leader and must realize they are now working with elected officials that are not a regular, internal part of school operations, Barker explained. Elected board members often come from a variety of backgrounds and offer a wide range of perspectives. A superintendent’s job is to integrate those perspectives with the board’s goals and work to establish a communication cadence and process so that each board member has enough information to be effective in their roles.
In turn, board members should understand how they can best communicate with the superintendent.
“A superintendent sometimes spends the majority of their day in communication with board members,” said Barker. It’s essential to shift many of the day-to-day management duties to staff and have a strong operations team so that the superintendent can keep the governance team informed. Prioritizing communication with the board means hosting weekly or bi-weekly calls, facilitating regular communication, and having plenty of open, continuous, and deliberate conversation about strategic goals and board activities.
For more information on understanding the role of a superintendent, read Six Important Questions School Boards Should Ask Superintendents.
4) Report Progress
What types of progress reports can be put in place to facilitate better board communication?
A good strategic plan serves as a roadmap for the board’s work and for defining the role of the board of education as a governance team. Key to great board communication is a regular cadence of written progress updates and board activity reports.
There are several reasons why a good written summary of board progress should be given at regular, monthly or bi-monthly, increments, advised Barker. Regular reports remind the board of what they have accomplished, provide a summary of recent decisions, and highlight what the board should be focusing on next. Well run board meetings are also critical.
Regular communication reports also facilitate discussion of what is being done currently and what still needs to be addressed, and act as reference material for board meetings. Even if it is just a 30-day update, the board can see what they have achieved, Barker said.
For more on board meeting best practices, read Board Meeting Minutes: 8 Things You Should Never Miss.
5) Use Great Tools
What tools facilitate and support solid board communication practices?
“We used Simbli as our meetings module and for housing our strategic plan when I was superintendent,” said Barker. When we talk about keeping the board on the same page, a well communicated, strategic plan is the best way to do that, he added. Annual, incremental milestones are built in to track progress and board meetings can be aligned to that plan. Good communication tools can give a board an easy way to work transparently with fewer distractions.
Using Simbli, a board can easily keep track of progress and stay on task and in line with the overall strategic plan.
To learn more about how Simbli can help boards accomplish their work more efficiently, view the case study on Sharing Board Work With Every Stakeholder.
6) Manage Conflict
What are some common types of conflict that pose barriers to effective communication?
One of the biggest causes for conflict among board members revolves around varying opinions, explained Barker. There is a common misconception that board members, or even a superintendent, should devote considerable time swaying others to their opinion.
“We spend a lot of time trying to convince people to adopt our position on an issue, and that can become very taxing,” said Barker. The value of good communication and conflict management lies in allowing for recognition of different opinions, making sure everyone feels like they’ve been heard, and then making informed decisions.
Data also becomes a strong ally for managing conflict. Hard data and facts help remind board members of actual progress or the reasons for a position on a potentially sensitive issue and provides an objective break from emotional feedback or controversy.
Today, conflict can come in many ways for a board. Defining the roles of who will manage conflict is an essential step for every board. Developing a plan for handling external conflict as well as internal conflict becomes a critical part of good board communication.
Most important, noted Barker, is practicing good listening. During heated public school board meetings, or when fielding grievances from parents, for example, taking a pause to truly listen often helps deescalate the situation and allows for faster and more effective resolution.
Tying It All Together
Establishing transparent, regular, and effective communication is essential to a board’s success and a vital step towards ensuring that board goals and objectives are met. Communicating roles, processes and tools are necessary to create the healthiest governance teams, and a superintendent plays a key role in modeling communication that facilitates the highest and best outcomes for a school board.