School Boards and Superintendents in Urban Districts

By McCloud, Barbara; McKenzie, Floretta Dukes | Phi Delta Kappan, January 1994 | Go to article overview

School Boards and Superintendents in Urban Districts


McCloud, Barbara, McKenzie, Floretta Dukes, Phi Delta Kappan


Board members and superintendents must remember that history and tradition are working against strategies to open communication, to build trust, and to clarify respective roles, these authors point out. Nevertheless, the times require these strategies.

In the past, school board members were charged with administering all aspects of the schools. However, as city populations grew between 1820 and 1860, members of urban school boards were overwhelmed by the enormity of their task. As a result, the office of the superintendent was created in the 1840s. From that day to this, there has been tension - and, often, strained relationships between the board that makes policy and the superintendent who implements it.

The tension has been highlighted during periods of education reform. In today's reform-minded environment, citizens and educational leaders point with concern to the high rate of turnover among urban superintendents and to the large number of vacancies in city superintendencies that attract few candidates. They point to inefficiencies of local boards of education and superintendents as a major part of the problem, but they all seem to ignore the fact that this problem is mired in the history of local school governance.

Board members and superintendents are not reluctant to discuss their mutual problems. Many contemporary urban superintendents say that the biggest problem in school governance is that school boards "micromanage" and inappropriately intervene in the administration of schools. They point out that boards don't know or practice their proper roles. A former superintendent from Tucson, Arizona, noted in Education Week that the role of boards should be limited, adding that his board had met 172 times in a single year and had approved a wide range of administrative matters.

School board members offer a countervailing perspective on school governance and on board/superintendent relationships. Many say that superintendents too often attempt to exert too much control and think their decisions should not be questioned or challenged by board members. Board members also assert that some superintendents don't understand that elected board members are obliged to represent and respond to their constituents. Board members note that parents and others ask them to solve myriad school problems and expect results.

In 1992 the Council of Urban Boards of Education of the National School Boards Association released a report, Urban Dynamics: Lessons in Leadership from Urban School Boards and Superintendents, which demonstrates that board members and superintendents are aware of their mutual problems. In that report both board members and superintendents agreed that open communication, trust, and understanding of role differences are the three factors most important to effective board/superintendent relationships. Both groups also agreed on the major factors that destabilize the relationship: board members who do not understand the differences between the board's and the superintendent's roles, poor communication, and personal agendas.

School board members and superintendents know - as do those of us who have watched, worked with, studied, or even served as urban board members and superintendents - that school boards and superintendents have different perceptions of the boundaries between policy and administration.

External forces. We believe that a host of factors outside the day-to-day operation of schools affect school board/superintendent relations in urban schools. These external forces place even more stress on the superintendent/board relationship. Important external forces include new demands for specific school policies from religious and other interest groups, increasing intervention from the mayor's office, heightened public expectations for collaboration between schools and the other agencies serving children, ongoing matters of policy and implementation related to the vestiges of desegregation, and anything that concerns redistricting. …

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