Board Discord: How to Avoid It
By Bob Thompson
Drawing from over 30 years experience working with boards of education I see the following recurring phenomena.
- In the vast majority of cases, trouble does not spring up overnight, it grows over time.
- What appears to be the cause of dissension is rarely the real cause. It is usually a symptom of a deeper dissatisfaction.
- The root cause of the trouble is usually emotional rather than factual and the facts are used only to bolster a conclusion already reached.
- The reason trouble is able to take root and grow in the minds of others not on the board is almost always rooted in a lack of deep and abiding trust of the board. If they trust you (i.e. the board) they will believe the best about you.
- Everyone always makes the right decision in his/her own eyes, based on:
- the data at hand
- the person’s value system
- his/her objective
- the circumstances at the time.(To understand why a board member votes the way he/she does, you must understand the data he/she is using, his/her value system, what his objectives are, and what were the circumstances when he/she made the decision.)
- Logic never trumps emotion. If a board member is upset, statistics and rational arguments (i.e. that are rational to you) will almost never change his/her mind.
- Everyone’s psychological make-up includes a set of unmet needs. Some of us, for example, crave attention. Unless you deal with my need for attention, I am not likely to respond to your entreaties to change my mind or behavior. You have to identify my needs and accommodate them before I will be willing to deal with your problem.
Some Prevention Strategies: (Before it happens)
- Develop written guidelines for board operation (e.g. code of conduct, operating procedures, board goals, performance based evaluation for superintendent, etc.)
- Get on the same wave length with the community. Get the board to host community forums (not a regular board meeting) to discuss board goals, the changing climate and role of public education, etc. and to hear their views. (This should not be a gripe session. Get the president to refer all of those to you. The purpose of these sessions is to give a current status report on the district and discuss its future.)
- Prior to the time a citizen can file to run for the board, conduct a Pre-election training seminar for potential school board members and interested citizens to help them understand what the job entails.
- Conduct a board orientation of new board members just like you host a superintendent orientation of new board members. The purpose of this board orientation is to discuss/review what the board has been doing and/or trying to accomplish, e.g. goals, code of conduct, operating procedures, vision for district, etc.
- Deal with problems early. If a board member is misbehaving or otherwise causing dissension on the board, try to get the board president to deal with it early, (either in a one-on-one conference or in executive session).
- Utilize board training on a regular basis to prevent problems before they happen.
Some Intervention Strategies: (When it happens)
- Act quickly. Don’t let a problem fester. Deal with the issue up front by talking about it and remind yourselves of what you have agreed to in your Code of Conduct and/or Operating Procedures.
- If the problem does not get resolved quickly, get a neutral, outside trainer/mediator to come in and help solve the problem.
- Hang in there. If good board members leave because “life is too short to put up with this”, the contentious board members gain control by default. That is bad for kids.
- Find out what the real motivation/need is. Most board members, even the contentious ones, have an internal logic (perhaps logical only to them but there is a logic) behind their motivations. Their actions may be judged as wrong by everyone else but it is logical to them.. Find out what that logic is so you can deal with the root cause of the problem, not the symptom.
- If nothing else works, censure the offending board member in open session.
- If that doesn’t work, consider asking for help from the “Governance” division of TEA.
- Train, train, train. It is almost impossible to become a team that understands and trusts each other just by attending regular board meetings. Specific board sessions dedicated to team-building (with no school business on the agenda) are the fastest way to iron out issues affecting the board. In these sessions you deal with internal board issues such as how you will treat each other (Code of Conduct), how you will do business (Operating Procedures), what you stand for (Core Beliefs) etc. Once you agree on these and get commitments, hold yourselves responsible for following them and review them after each board meeting.