Superintendent Evaluations: School Boards, Begin with a Question

By Peter K. Fagen, Partner, Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP (F3 Law)

“Describe a great boss. Someone for whom you have worked. Someone who inspired you to set and reach stretch goals.” This is a thought that I often present to governance teams when I have been asked to guide their self-evaluation, and the subsequent evaluation of the superintendent.

My colleagues at F3 Law and I have facilitated these conversations in districts throughout the state, from small and rural districts with one or two schools to major-market districts with thousands of employees and students. 

Here are some of the most common responses from board members:

  • Trustworthy – Does not use information to hurt people or build divides
  • Frank – Direct, yet compassionate
  • Gives clear direction – Sets goals and expectations, then gets out of the way so I can do my job
  • Uses evaluations effectively – They are used to reflect, grow and drive positive change, and they are never a “surprise” or “gotcha”
  • Accepts mistakes and missteps with grace – Understands that trying something new might cause failures
  • Eager to learn – From successes, failures and from others
  • Great listener – Patient and active listener, might not give you everything you want or ask for, but you know you have been heard
  • Leads with questions rather than directives
    “How might we do this?”

    “Is the goal clear?”

    “Is the reason for the goal clear?”

    “Do you have what you need to achieve this goal?”

    “What do you need from me?”

  • Appreciative
    Those who are quick to give direction and/or point out weaknesses should be equally quick to offer sincere praise

After hearing the board members share their thoughts — they typically agree with one another and expand on each other’s thoughts — I remind them that they, as a body, are the superintendent’s boss. Then I ask, “Is this board a great boss? What role have you, the boss, played in the superintendent’s successes and challenges?”

Consistently, I find that trustees appreciate this discussion, and they reflect openly, honestly and with integrity. Essentially, they practice what they preach, meaning, if they want their superintendent to take an honest look at her/his leadership style and effectiveness, then the board must be willing to take an honest look at theirs, too.

What makes the work of a board member most challenging, in my opinion, is that the public, including many district employees, do not understand the role of the board of education. They believe members, as individuals, can make things happen. Yes, you can — indeed should — ask questions, and you can share information. You are obligated to bring the voice of the people into discussions and the decision-making processes. But alone, a trustee does not have the authority to give direction. Legally, all authority rests with the full board.

So, if the board as a whole is the boss, then the question to each board in the 1,000-plus districts in California and the boards in our county offices of education is, “Are you a great boss?”

Beginning the evaluation process with this reflective question can help your board grow stronger and more focused. As a result, you will give clear(er) direction to the superintendent, the board’s only employee and the person whom you empower to marshal all resources, and focus talent and energy to drive the necessary changes to ensure success for all students.

On a personal note, I want to thank trustees and superintendents for dedicating yourselves to serve our public schools, and kids. Your work is complex, emotional, demanding, and appreciated; thank you.