The Fine Line: It's a Never-Ending Question between School Boards and Superintendents: Who Has Authority over What Issues and How Can Both Sides Coexist Peacefully and Effectively?

By Covino, Jennifer K. | District Administration, May 2002 | Go to article overview

The Fine Line: It's a Never-Ending Question between School Boards and Superintendents: Who Has Authority over What Issues and How Can Both Sides Coexist Peacefully and Effectively?


Covino, Jennifer K., District Administration


Earlier this year, a superintendent in Prince George's County, Md., was fired by the school board, temporarily reinstated after a Sunday evening circuit court session and redeemed by an antiquated state law. This all happened during 10 whirlwind days that swept state lawmakers, business leaders and the media into a frenzied debate about how best to govern school systems.

Meanwhile, in Piper, Kan., the school board voted behind dosed doors to override a teacher's decision on classroom plagiarism. The teacher resigned in protest; CNN, The New York Times and national media came calling. The board found itself accused of violating an open meeting law and criticized for overstepping its boundaries.

The events in Maryland and Kansas come with their own set of details and circumstances, but the questions they raise are universal and timeless: Where should the authority of school boards end and that of superintendents begin? How can school boards and superintendents coexist peacefully and effectively? And when is it appropriate for the state to step in, settle the score, or even to take the reins?

POWER STRUGGLE

Iris T. Metts' firing sparked a heated power struggle over the 130,000-student Prince George's County school system. State legislators called for swift and immediate intervention, but after a few weeks, cooled off on the idea of an emergency takeover, and instead were considering long-term ways to restructure the board.

Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, followed the daily headlines from his office in nearby Arlington, Va. "I'm not a huge fan of state takeovers, but they should be considered a viable option in certain extreme conditions," he says. "In Prince George's County, it's kind of hard to argue with the state stepping in. Somebody has to be the adult in that case."

Houston saw the situation as "a power straggle issue, with the board trying to strip away the authority of the superintendent. Smart boards give superintendents a lot of a latitude because they recognize that they've hired a professional."

According to Houston, the metaphor of the school board as Congress and the superintendent as president is a faulty one, because, with the exception of a few Southern states, a school superintendent isn't independently elected the way a president is. Rather, superintendents are hired by and become employees of a board of education. The structure creates a unique dynamic.

Houston blames the tension between superintendents and school boards on a "lack of clarity" about what boards should and should not be involved in. "Board members often [start] without properly understanding their roles," he says. "I had a school board president tell me once that she believed her job was to thwart my actions as superintendent."

According to Naomi Gittins, a staff attorney for the National School Board Association, the majority of school board/superintendent relationships are the solid and steady kind that don't cause waves or make headlines. Gittins refutes the perception that superintendents are being driven from school district to school district by micromanaging boards.

Like Houston, Gittins believes a state intervention should occur only as a last resort. "People at the local level know best what their community needs," she says.

Gittins says the little-known Maryland law that ultimately saved Metts' job seems to be unique to that state. The law gives the state superintendent--not the local board--the right to fire a local superintendent.

PERSONNEL MATTERS

Historically, hiring, firing, evaluations and other personnel issues have been major points of contention between boards and superintendents. As a result, several states, including Kentucky and Massachusetts, have taken steps to clarify or curtail the power of boards in these matters, according to Houston. …

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