Maximizing effectiveness as a leadership team

The board of education, superintendent and treasurer are the district's leadership team. These team members commit to high standards, debate often difficult topics and believe that continuous improvement is necessary for all students to succeed. In all matters, effective school boards lead as one unified team with the superintendent and treasurer, each from their respective and interdependent roles. According to emerging research, the proper role of the board of education is one of leadership focused on student achievement and classroom instruction.  How does a board member assume a complementary student achievement leadership role to those of key administrators?

How does the district's leadership team develop and maintain a successful functioning relationship while working interdependently? The secret is understanding the role of the school board and the role of the superintendent. A unified leadership team commits to a common purpose, a clear mission and a shared sense of responsibility to achieve the district's vision.  Research shows that high performing districts and leadership teams demonstrate the following to realize unity:

  • the board made the superintendent selection process a top priority - matching district culture, goals and needs with the superintendent's philosophy, training, experience and leadership style.
  • the board and superintendent agreed on the superintendent's job description and evaluation plan.
  • the board and superintendent developed a plan for their collaboration focusing on what they would do as a team.
  • the board and superintendent conducted quarterly team evaluation and development workshops.  During these sessions, the team candidly discussed what it must do to keep the school system and community focused on high student achievement. Further, the team honestly appraised progress and challenges associated with board/superintendent leadership and governance in reaching annual and long-range goals. 

What is unified leadership? What specific questions can the board use to reflect on its leadership practices? Are there recommended action steps that can move a board toward a positive and productive board-superintendent or board-treasurer relationship? How does the concept of unified leadership impact student achievement? View the Relationship Sketch Video which sets the stage for this critical key work of school boards.  

What does an effective unified leadership team look like?  

Researcher Mary Delagardelle (2008) reported that in effective districts the board and superintendent built positive and trusting relationships. They relied on these relationships to enable them to play strong, interdependent leadership roles. They examined and challenged each other's views, studied data and confronted existing realities. They asked probing questions and scrutinized district performance in ways that strengthened and mobilized the entire team.  

Understanding the roles

To clarify roles, boards and superintendents must reach agreement on common elements. In Ohio, boards are elected by the community to set priorities, establish policies and evaluate the outcomes of district operations. Superintendents identify needs and policies, develop regulations, provide instructional leadership and manage day-to-day district operations. Superintendents and board members are not the same, but each needs the other to be successful. Board members are usually not professional educators and have neither the special training nor the experience necessary for educational leadership. Even board members who are or have been educators must know and accept that the board role is different. Likewise, superintendents are professional educators, but they are not elected officials and should not perform the governance functions of community elected board members.

Specifically, research indicates that the foundation of a productive and effective board-superintendent relationship is based on sound understanding and consensus around:

  • the role of the board
  • the constituencies to which the board is accountable
  • how the board will relate to its constituencies
  • the goals and strategies needed to achieve expected results, and
  • how the board defines its role in relation to the superintendent

Without such consensus, school boards will focus on the short-term micromanagement of the school system and will respond to special interests, factions and specific complaints of individual constituents.” (Danzberger, 1994)

Impact of the Board-Superintendent Relationship on Student Achievement

"Strong, collaborative leadership by local school boards and school superintendents is a key cornerstone of the foundation for high student achievement" (p. 7). In Getting There from Here, author Richard Goodman and colleagues (1997) concluded that those with a strong board/superintendent relationship had greater student achievement as measured by dropout rates, the percentage of students going to college and aptitude test scores. Goodman’s review of characteristics of quality governance included several that were directly related to school boards and their relationships:

  • A trusting and collaborative relationship between the board and superintendent;
  • Conditions and organizational structures created by the board that allowed the superintendent to function as the chief executive officer and instructional leader of the district;
  • Evaluation of the superintendent according to mutually agreed upon procedures; and
  • Effective communication between the board president and superintendent and among all board members.

When boards and superintendents fail to work together effectively, teachers and students suffer. Dysfunction at the top distracts from the implementation of needed programs, and the bad publicity that accompanies infighting makes it harder to recruit and retain good teachers and administrators.

Boards that are effective in leading districts to higher levels of student achievement play a valuable leadership role by creating a shared district vision, using data to set appropriate teaching and learning goals and monitor progress toward fulfilling that vision and achieving those goals.

Effective boards support this improvement process creating awareness and urgency about the district's student achievement needs by: creating a climate characterized by shared decision-making; providing meaningful professional development; committing time, energy, and resources to district improvement efforts; developing policies that support the focus on student achievement; and connecting with district leaders while practicing unified governance with the district superintendent.

For more information on board-superintendent relationships, please contact Cheryl Ryan, Teri Morgan or Kim Miller-Smith at (614) 540-4000 or (800) 589-OSBA.


The "File Attachments" located on the right hand side of the page are outstanding board-superintendent relationship resources used with the permission of the authoring organization.  "Links" as noted under the Resources section of the page, are additional media resources, OSBA services and publications that support district advocacy efforts.