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Being clear about who makes various decisions and enacting those decisions with integrity is key to effective leadership.

One of the least understood aspects of school systems is decision making. Who decides what gets taught and how many tests there are? How are students assigned to schools or allowed to attend specialized schools? How are funds allocated to schools, and how are budgets increased or decreased? Who hires and/or fires employees? How are policies set? Governance is rarely talked about and rife with politics, yet system leaders who seek to transform their school districts must pay close attention to the decision-making processes — both formal and informal — if they seek to improve outcomes for children.

Let’s take formal governance processes first. Most school districts are governed by an elected board of education. While many citizens can’t name members of their local school board, school boards have significant power. Board members are supposed to do three seemingly straightforward things: hire/fire and evaluate the superintendent, set policy, and approve a budget.

But how board members fulfill these responsibilities in the political context of a school system is where the rubber hits the road. The superintendent and his/her team may be the face of the organization, but their power can be compromised by the political whims of elected officials. Being an elected school board member is one of the most difficult and paradoxical elected offices in our body politic. Unlike city council members, mayors, or state legislators, school board members are not supposed to do constituent service. When my street remains unplowed days after a snow storm, I can call my local representative to complain and expect that s/he  will register my complaint, pass it along to the appropriate agency, respond to me, and hold that agency accountable. But, if I called a school board member because I don’t like my child’s teacher, that would be considered inappropriate. The board member would be violating personnel rules if s/he did anything except tell me to talk to my child’s principal. School board members must be cautious about interfering with personnel situations that should be managed by district employees or risk complicating legal and regulatory processes.  Two very different worlds.

School board members are elected, however, on the promise that they’re going to do something to fix student achievement, hold the superintendent accountable, control runaway spending, make sure schools start later, save a certain program or not close a school, etc. Yet, each school board member is one part of a larger body and has no individual power. They must build coalitions and consensus. And, more like someone serving on a corporate board, the school board member ideally is there to support the superintendent and help him/her be successful. Constituents, however, vote on campaign promises.

To add another layer of complexity, in most states, school boards can’t raise taxes on their own. Additional political theater gets layered onto decision making by having a funding authority — sometimes, a city/town council, sometimes a state budget office or legislative agency — determine how much money to give the school system. These elected officials are expected to be responsive to their constituents, so whoever speaks the loudest and organizes the best typically gets their interests represented. And, of course, the people who have the most power in American politics are affluent white people, so race and class factor into governance as well. Add into this mix the move in many school districts to create more autonomy at the school level and to establish site-based, decision-making teams. Then, there are contracts between management and different employee groups, which often delineate some type of collaborative decision making.

Know your values

Given the multiple rabbit holes of decision making within a school system, a leader must make some strategic choices about how to make change within the local context. A superintendent must first know which hill they’re going to die on. Since most superintendents last only a few years in one district, given the demands and the politics of the job, they must know going in which issues they will fight over. Collaboration, compromise, and finding shared interests are essential leadership skills. Yet there can also be a moral imperative, which is typically manifested in starkly different achievement outcomes for students according to their racial makeup. System leaders need to know going into the job what they’re willing to lose their job over — although one should never make it public. Moral certitude can not only help one sleep at night, it also can be a powerful rallying cry for like-minded individuals who can offer much needed support.

Although the politics are more raw in larger and big city school districts, even the smallest school boards can be marked by alliances among members and between members and key community stakeholders. Likewise, system leaders must make their own alliances with school board members and with parents and other community leaders because that enables them to build political capital. But system leaders also must be prepared for those alliances to change.

Many school system leaders pay too little attention to formal policy, which is a mistake since you can draw a straight line between a policy, subsequent rule changes, and resource allocation. Equity, school assignment/admissions, and curriculum policies can form the backbone of a leader’s efforts to improve outcomes for children. Policy changes should be made transparently with the public, and they should be based on data. An open discussion about a proposed policy gives the leader opportunities to lay bare the issues that may be preventing improvement. If done properly, the process for creating a new policy or changing an old one can be a powerful engagement tool for the public. Once a policy is set, the school board is bound to uphold it, and the leader has an opportunity to align resources to the desired state.

Transparency and integrity are the cornerstones of good governance. Whatever anyone might say about you, never let them say you don’t have integrity. People will inevitably disagree with a leader’s decision at some point, but if the decision-making process has integrity, the leader may get the benefit of the doubt that it was necessary. By integrity, I mean system leaders need to be clear on what the issue is and the supporting data, who is going to be involved in the decision making, who has final say, what the timeline is for a decision, and how the decision will be monitored and even modified. All of this should be made clear to everyone, reinforced multiple times, and even posted electronically. Integrity matters.

Finally, system leaders must be very clear about the difference between formal and informal decision making, even those that are determined by rules and those that the leader has authority to create on his/her own. I once worked in a school district where teachers were frustrated by their union leadership. Some complained to me that I should ignore the union leaders because they didn’t represent teachers. I had to explain that I was legally bound by the contract to work with them despite their behavior. But I also created processes and structures for involving teachers in our transformation efforts in other ways. Thus, while the union leadership had a formal role, I had enough engagement and relationships with rank-and-file teachers to know when to push back on the union and more important to align resources to rank-and-file teacher needs.

Some have argued that school boards are a relic of the past and that the need for innovation in modern school systems requires a more agile structure with clear lines of accountability to the funding authority or the mayor. This argument has merits and, having worked in a mayoral control system, I can attest to the speed with which decisions can be made. Yet America is a system of checks and balances, and the system leader must embrace that context and work within it by being very clear about who makes different kinds of decisions, ensuring that the process of decision making is transparent and has integrity, and not being afraid to stand by the final decisions regardless of the consequences to oneself.

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va.

Originally published in October 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (2), 72-73. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.