Coping with Board Disharmony

Dec 4, 2014

by Bob Thompson

Board harmony is cyclic. All boards cycle from “harmony” to “disharmony” and back again. The cycles may vary in length and in intensity, but the cycle inevitably takes place. The important question for the superintendent is “What to do about it”?

Well, the answer to that question is “It depends”! Sometimes the superintendent is the cause (or object) of the disharmony, and when that happens, he/she should adjust his/her behavior accordingly and/or move on to another job.

But most of the time the disharmony is from causes outside of the superintendent and that is what we will deal with here.

So what should the superintendent do when board disharmony begins to occur and the superintendent is not the cause of it?

First, there are three questions the superintendent must answer of him/herself:

  1. Can I survive this storm without being caught up in it?
  2. Is this a problem within my skill set, i.e. can I manage/lead a district that has a dysfunctional board?
  3. Am I willing to put my family and me through the agonies that will inevitably result as the board goes into and through disharmony?

Second, if the answer to all of the questions above is “Yes”, then what should I do? The short (and oversimplified) answer is “nothing”. This is a board problem, not an administrative one. Yes, you should do your part to promote harmony on the board. But there is a line between promoting harmony and trying to ameliorate or solve problems of disharmony among board members. And superintendents should never cross that line. Here are some guidelines on what to do:

  1. Never allow yourself to be sucked into any involvement or discussion of a board election.
  2. Never get involved in the election of officers, even though you know that the election of the wrong person as president will make your job more difficult.
  3. If board membership changes and the new board changes direction, you must change too. Some superintendents see this is being wishy-washy but it is not. It is what you ethically and morally must do. It’s as if you are managing a company that changes ownership. You must do what the new owners want done as long as it is not immoral or illegal. The board members were elected on a platform and they have a right to change or reverse direction. Your only choice is whether you will stay or leave.
  4. Never get between board members or take sides when they are in a dispute with one another. That is the board president’s job.
  5. If the disharmony emanates from the community or has spilled over into the community, make sure you involve people on all sides of the issue in any outreach to the community or involvement of the community in district decisions.