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Dear Randy...

You ask, our leadership expert answers

Sometimes boards serve in an appeal role for decisions made at other levels. The rules for appeals often focus on whether the lower board followed protocols, rather than whether it ruled correctly. How does an administrator exert appropriate leadership if board members seem inclined to rule on the correctness of the decision, with which they disagree, rather than the protocols followed?

William J. Cirone, Superintendent of Schools Santa Barbara County (Calif.), Office of Education

Dear William,

When I read your excellent question I was reminded of a quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes: "The young man knows the rules; the old man knows the exceptions." Your question focuses on one of the dilemmas that we all face at some time in our career. Often when due process is at stake we present our case and then leave the board of education alone to deliberate. While it is clear that their task is to determine if the decision was arbitrary or capricious or whether it followed protocol, at times they debate the wisdom of the actual decision.

I have found that a good understanding of the situation between the superintendent and the board's attorney is the best way to make sure that their discussion is narrowly focused. Their attorney will remain in the room with them and be able to guide them. It should always be clear that the attorney's job is not to represent the superintendent. It should also be clear that he or she has an interest in making sure the board does its job in a legal manner.

Another way is to continually use the legal community to educate the board members regarding state law, especially when they are new to the board. Many new board members are elected or appointed with a very elementary understanding of the role and often think they have more authority than, in fact, they do. I would refrain from lobbying board members to ensure that their discussion is on protocol, as this can backfire and actually make the situation worse.


How do you deal with a situation when a board of education member continually asks for information in order to provide a "constituent" with an answer?


Dear Anonymous,

This can be difficult especially for a superintendent new to the profession. While on the one hand you want to be open and provide information, on the other you have to be concerned that other board members are not blindsided, that they do not think you are playing favorites or that you are not violating board policy. First, I would gently remind the board member of the policy that most systems have. It is common for board policies to be clear that individual board members are to act alone at the direction of the board. Additionally, most boards also have policies that indicate that constituents are to follow the chain of command in resolving a complaint or request information. If you find that you have to give the board member the information, then I would provide the question and the answer to all the members of the board in writing. This happened to me early in my career, and it turned out that the constituent was a teacher at the high school. This is a tricky situation that is best handled with honesty.


What one characteristic do you think is most important in leaders of districts and schools?

Susan Salcido Assistant Superintendent, Instructional Services Santa Barbara County (Calif.) Office of Education

Dear Susan,

Over the years my thinking on this has evolved. When I first became a superintendent three decades ago, I would have said that the most important characteristic is the ability to manage and make the tough decisions. However, I would now say "flexibility." In the role of superintendent, the real skill that will determine success is the ability to be flexible and not locked into a single best answer to a problem. If you have a disagreement with a colleague, a member of your staff, or an elected official, it is best not to back that person into a corner. Flexibility leads one to be able to establish relationships, and that is the key to leading successfully. Being flexible should not be confused with being weak. Quite the contrary—it is the sign of a confident superintendent.


Send your questions regarding leadership situations/ difficulties you have encountered or any educational issue big or small, to rcollins@ Randall Collins served as superintendent of Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools for 19 years and was president of the American Association of School Administrators from 2008 to 2009. He is currently consulting on the development of a District Administration Leadership Institute for school administrators.