Superintendent Evaluations Gone Bad

By Rick Maloney

A friend with more than 30 years of school board service tells a story from his first year on the board. Eager to learn, he attended an annual school board conference. At one of the luncheons, he asked others around the table to describe an effective school board. A businessman and urban board member responded: “The ideal school board meets once a year. At this meeting the board considers a single agenda item, a motion to fire the superintendent. If the motion passes, the board begins a search for a new superintendent. If the motion fails, the annual evaluation is declared satisfactory, the meeting adjourns, and the board goes home for the year.”

My friend tells this story when discussing the board’s accountability role, and it never fails to get a laugh. He often follows by telling of another board member he met a few years later who had a different approach to supervising the superintendent. This board president routinely visited the district office on Monday mornings to review the superintendent’s personal calendar and approve or disapprove each meeting or appointment planned for the week.

Accountability in the form of superintendent evaluation is arguably the board’s most important function. The superintendent is hired by the board to run the district, and the board is elected by the community to see that the district runs well. More than just another district employee, the superintendent represents to the board the sum total of the organization, so system accountability comes with the title.

The school board, for its part, is positioned between the community and its schools to provide that accountability function. Nevertheless, boards struggle with carrying out this responsibility. We try to do the job conscientiously, but many of us still fall short, either by not doing enough (like the urban board member in my friend’s story) or by doing too much (like the schedule-approving board member my friend encountered).

My board has had challenges figuring out how to evaluate our superintendent. Although we knew we didn’t have the expertise to run a district by ourselves, we also knew that our community held us responsible for appropriate oversight. We weren’t happy with the status quo, which was to give the superintendent a free hand, then complain and criticize, mostly about our relationship with the superintendent.

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