Six Important Questions School Boards Should Ask Superintendents
Improve board dynamics by asking the right questions
Serving as a school board member can be a rewarding experience, but as you know, the role also comes with its share of challenges. Miscommunication, lack of bold and courageous goals, unhealthy team dynamics, and poor policy management are just a few you might have experienced.
Fortunately, these challenges can be overcome. But your board is going to need some help. We recently invited Dr. Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), to talk us about how boards and superintendents can best work together to achieve their goals.
“School boards are on the front line, really,” says Dr. Bottoms. “You hear parents, business people, and other stakeholders in the community—they all have a stake in their schools. Part of your role is to ask the right questions of superintendents.”
The Super Six Questions
Here are the six questions Dr. Bottoms recommends school board members ask their superintendents to help them develop a closer working relationship, and achieve the outcomes set out in their strategic plan.
Question 1: Strategic Planning
How do we create a community and district-wide culture of continuous improvement, plan strategically, and align our operating plans to achieve strategic outcomes?
“This is an essential question that school boards should ask their superintendent,” says Dr. Bottoms. “An effective strategic plan will result in a culture of continuous improvement by helping central office and school staff work together in unison toward achieving bold goals.”
Bold goals could include a 95 percent graduation rate, 80 percent college and career ready, or both, he adds. If your board doesn’t have such a plan, Dr. Bottoms recommends working with your superintendent to develop those goals around a framework of proven practices to help level the playing field and increase the number of students who are college and career ready.
Question 2: Student Achievement
How are we monitoring leading critical indicators to support all of our students achieving at grade level or above, and how are we communicating that information?
Dr. Bottoms notes that it’s important to look beyond test scores, at the experiences of different groups of students in the classroom to understand why certain students achieve at a higher level than others.
“The differences between classroom expectations and classroom practices between honors classes and regular classes are dramatic,” he says. “Most students in the other classes could achieve at honor levels, too. But they’re given a different kind of instruction, and school boards must understand this.”
He recommends boards work with superintendents to identify current classroom expectations, assignments and assessments, and ensure that they’re aligned to grade-level work for all students.
Question #3: Accountability
How do we hold personnel accountable for developing and implementing school improvement plans at each school?
Dr. Bottoms says that, although we often think of teachers when we discuss accountability, it’s the responsibility of everyone in the school system to ensure students are successful. Boards and superintendents can make this happen by ensuring that every employee understands his or her role in supporting students, using the district’s strategic plan as their guide.
“What must be evaluated in terms of how everybody performs their role, is that we are a team,” he says. “And a good plan builds a team of unison. It’s not about who failed to do something. Everybody carries their role and should be held accountable in that context.”
Question #4: Equity
What policy recommendations, practices and data indicators are we utilizing to ensure we are meeting every child where they are?
Dr. Bottoms cautions that remediation and accommodation strategies lower expectations, and don’t help students achieve to their potential. Instead, he advises that boards examine their policies and challenge district leaders to consider new perspectives.
“Equity is not about accommodating folks. It’s not about remediation,” he says. “It is about accelerating learning. It’s about providing additional time and assistance that some students need to get there. We have to look for strategies to get people to the grade-level work.”
Question 5: Building Community Support
How are we engaging, soliciting, and responding to our key stakeholders, parents, and business leaders to enhance student learning?
Dr. Bottoms recommends that boards and superintendents work together, through their policies and strategic plans, to invite the faith community, the business community, and parents to be engaged to enhance student learning. He adds that school systems can encourage parents to become partners in the education of their children by making sure all students understand the opportunities available to them after they graduate.
As part of the larger question, he says boards should ask:
“How do we develop policies that allow elementary and middle-grade students to see the back side of the hospital, of the emergency room, to see a modern-day manufacturing plant, or the back side of a bank to understand all these opportunities, and begin to visualize themselves in those roles?”
Question 6: Fiscal Responsibility
How do we ensure that we are being fiscally responsible with our financial resources, and how do we communicate that to our board and community stakeholders?
When it comes to fiscal responsibility, says Dr. Bottoms, the most important thing for boards and superintendents to remember is that they need to be transparent. This means reviewing a monthly report of income and expenditures, understanding how discretionary income is being spent, and providing an annual report to the community.
“The taxpayers are your stockholders, and there ought to be an annual report online or sent out in print, eight to 10 pages that outlines, ‘This is what your dollars bought in this district,’” he says. “These are the results you’re getting for the investment you make in the public school system.”
Watch the Webinar
For additional tips on how boards and superintendents can build a more collaborative relationship, watch the webinar, The Super Six — The Top 6 Questions School Board Members Should be Asking Their Superintendents.