Posts Tagged ‘Board Governance’

This is the fifth in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

The sometimes rocky relationships between superintendents and school boards are often well covered in local news and many researchers have dug into the importance of the relationship between the local elected officials, and the hired lead for the education system.  As with many other parts in the education system, there are multiple right ways for the two entities to work together.  I have written before on my blog thoughts on this topic, like here in 2014, on how boards and superintendents support each other.

For this current study, the focus is on the time of the superintendent, and in part on the number of hours they spend with the board and / or on governance issues.  My study got feedback from 59 of the 60 superintendents in British Columbia on their use of time.  My bias going in to the study was that the larger the district, the more hours a week the superintendent spends on governance and with trustees.

My prediction was partly, yet not completely true.  There were dramatic differences in the time that superintendents spent with their boards. Superintendents were asked in one part of the survey to identify the number of hours in an average week between September and June they spent on governance.  Six of the seven districts where superintendents spent five hours or fewer each week on governance had populations of up to 6,000 students (these were categorized as small districts for the study), but the final one in the group was a district of more than 22,000 students (these were the largest districts for the study). Looking at the other end of the spectrum, and those superintendents that spend more than 21 hours a week with on governance, three of the seven districts are from the highest student population category of more than 22,000 students, and there is one each from districts from the four next categories in population.  It was not simple to say that it was only in the large districts that superintendents spent most of their time with boards.

There was also a dynamic with superintendent gender and time spent with the board. Twenty of the 28 superintendents that indicated they spent ten or fewer hours a week over the year with their board were men, while five of the seven that spend more than 21 hours a week were women. Similar to educational leadership, there was not a dramatic difference between superintendents in their first five years and more experienced superintendents on the time they spend with their Boards. Both the newer and experienced superintendents had comparable numbers at both ends of the spectrum of less than five hours and more than 21 hours a week.

Working with boards is a task that virtually all superintendents take primary responsibility for. This area scored the highest among the 33 tasks for which superintendents take the highest level of direct responsibility. The second highest task was strategic planning, a task that is often done in concert with elected trustees. Other high-ranking tasks for direct involvement by superintendents included working with government organizations, working with parent organizations and citizen complaints, all of which are often tasks that have some level of shared responsibility between the governance and administrative sides of the organization.

In written responses, many superintendents lamented about what they saw as excess time that they spent with the board, as this was time taken away from working with the school system and focusing on student learning. Several superintendents referenced general guidelines they try to come up with to divide their time between governance and working with the board and all other time working with the rest of the system. Superintendents referenced goals of 20-30% of their time working with trustees, but the data shows some are working more than this, and others are working less.

While not the purpose of the study, the relationship between superintendent and trustees was front of mind for many superintendents when reflecting on their use of time.  Said one superintendent when responding to a question on control over their time, “Yes, with the current Board I do. They understand their roles very well, and minimize the time taken on governance and related issues that are not a part of the plan for student success.”   But for others the opposite experience was true, like this superintendent, “At this point my board continues to create an ongoing crisis where I am continually trying to respond.”  When superintendents reflected on their ability to control their time, their thoughts on their current Board were often central.  

This study was not intended to determine what the ideal number of hours per week is for superintendents to spend with trustees on governance work, but the range of hours clearly opens up this question.

Superintendents expressed some frustration about how they work with their board. It is also important, particularly given how inexperienced so many superintendents are in the province, that they need support around governance, and not just the trustees. In their 2019 book, The governance core: School boards, superintendents, and schools working together Davis Campbell and Michael Fullan argued, “many superintendents simply view the board as an external power source, important and legitimate but not a part of the superintendent’s team.” (as an aside, this is a great book study for trustees and senior executive members)

There needs to be continuous ongoing work to support superintendents to understand the crucial role that boards play in the system and how superintendents support the work of the board and boards support the work of the superintendent.

For further study, it would be interesting to ask each board how many hours a week they spend with the superintendent to measure that time and see if there is an alignment in their views. There is probably no perfect answer, and this study did not set out to determine if five hours or thirty hours is more appropriate, but the vast differences are worthy of more discussion to understand the range of governance models better and determine what the successes and drawbacks are for the various number of hours that superintendents spend with their trustees.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the urgency and reactionary nature of the superintendency.

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The post below is a copy of column that has been published this month (February 2016) in the School Administrator Magazine as part of their regular Board Savvy Superintendent feature. You can download a PDF of the article here and visit the AASA website for more details on the magazine.

The column is based on two previous blog posts on board governance from December 2014 on Board Governance and on How the Board and Superintendent Support Each Other.
Doing Small Things To Improve Governance

While much is made of the big things school districts can do to improve the state of board governance, small things make a big difference. When my board chair sits down in my office and pulls out her phone, I grab my computer as I know she is going to her “list” and I have one as well.

This exchange is part of our routine as we meet regularly to get guidance, clarification or action from each other. These meetings are one of the small things we do to maintain strong relationships and stable governance in West Vancouver, B.C. A few other ways follow.

Board work plan/calendar. Our board work plan serves as a checklist. As people move in and out of roles, it provides continuity and keeps us moving in the right direction. By March, we are finalizing the calendar for the following year. From briefing meetings to committee schedules and liaison meetings, the earlier we can establish a calendar, the more respectful we can be around professional and personal schedules across the district.

Clarity around policies (board) and procedures (superintendent). About a decade ago, our board updated the district’s policies and administrative procedures manuals. The board has 18 policies and bylaws that speak to their governance role. The administrative procedures manual, which is the responsibility of the superintendent, has 100-plus measures guiding daily operations. Of course, linkages exist between the two, but this model does help to reaffirm organizational roles.

Clear superintendent evaluation. Our board uses a framework set out by its professional support organization for the evaluation process. With our model of policies and procedures, I have been assigned a high level of responsibility and therefore should be held to a high level of accountability.

In our district, all educators participate in a growth plan model. Administrators work with district staff on their plans and teachers share their plans with principals and colleagues. I meet with our five-member board three times annually to review my growth plan, which has three areas of focus — the first is from the role description that is in policy, another is based on the district’s strategic plan, and the third is personal-professional growth.

Strategic planning.
The strategic planning process is written into policy in West Vancouver. We have just published our strategic plan that will carry the district forward until 2018. The board’s latest four-year plan includes directions around fostering learning excellence, promoting visionary governance, supporting an evolving community and embracing the transitions we are seeing with learning in our schools. Our plan is incredibly valuable as a guide to operations as we receive constant requests from groups inside and outside the district. With this in place, we can see easily which align with our objectives.

A culture of growth and support. We are in the learning business. The more we can model that the better. No matter how strong results might be, opportunities to do better are always top of mind.

The board dedicates time at each of its meetings for school highlights. Each school has an opportunity to make a presentation during the course of the school year. Often schools share new ideas and innovative approaches that are having an impact on learning. Recent reports focused on outdoor learning spaces, libraries being converted to learning commons, and ways to communicate student learning beyond traditional report cards. Support for new ideas and recognition for good work go a long way.

Beyond Routine.  While the board in West Vancouver places the bar high on learning, we always look for new ways to meet the needs of modern learners.

Readers may view this as a commonsense list, it is far more than that. It is the commitment to the plan — and the mutual understanding it creates — that can make the most difference in a high-functioning organization. As we see all the time in a district that is doing well, you will find a board and superintendent in sync and committed to doing whatever it takes to work together for the benefit of students.

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supportThis is a follow-up post to my recent post regarding Board Governance – Some Small Things That Can Make a Big Difference. This post picks up on a couple of other areas that recently retired Board Chair, Cindy Dekker, and myself shared with trustees and senior staff colleagues at the BCSTA’s Fall Academy. We looked at little things superintendents can do to support Boards and small things Boards can do to support superintendents and district senior staff. In support of the Boards I spoke about:

How Superintendent Supports the Board

Regular Briefings on District Issues and Topics – These are briefing meetings or trustee workshops (different Boards have different names for the meetings). We regularly schedule time for the superintendent and members of the District Leadership Team to in-service trustees on issues and topics. These are not decision-making sessions; rather, these meetings are an occasion to ensure trustees have a like understanding on any particular topic. While the meetings can occur anytime during the year, we do reserve time prior to public Board meetings for these important sessions.

Clear Processes – Nothing can be less helpful than a muddy process. For trustees to make a thoughtful, informed decision there must be a clear process and inclusive of the community. This is an area where the superintendent can provide important guidance. As an example, say a teacher, parent, trustee or community member wants to start a new program in the district. We have a very clear Choice Consultative Committee process to guide us through and to ensure the good ideas are thought through, planned and come to fruition.

Orientation – Trustee orientation is built into policy in our school district. Elections are held in November, and the period up to spring break is taken to focus on orientation for all trustees. Again, it is important for all trustees to have a like understanding of all information. So, we have built a “101” series, like a set of first-year university introductory courses. Each week, trustees will work with staff on learning an understanding a different aspect of the organization. Areas include: working with the superintendent, budget and finance, human resources and bargaining, curriculum and provincial learning directions, Aboriginal education, Student Support Services, International Programs and Facilities.

Share Information with All Trustees – When a trustee asks the superintendent a general question via email, I respond to all trustees. It is symbolic about how we work together. If it is a question for one trustee, it is likely a question for all.

Media and Emergencies – We are clear about who will be the spokesperson for different issues and also ensure we have consistency and clarity in our messaging to staff and the community. In our context, the superintendent is most often the spokesperson and will loop in the Board Chair on any emerging and media topics.

Ensure Profile for the Trustees – West Vancouver is a community with an outstanding public education system and with strong independent schools. It is crucial the public education story stays front and centre in our community. The superintendent can work to ensure that the important work and leadership of trustees are highlighted at community events and in local newspapers.


In the area of Board support for superintendents, Cindy spoke about:

Board Supports Superintendent


Respectful of Staff Time and Work/Family Balance – Our Board has been very respectful to the fact that most staff in district leadership positions have young families. If the superintendent needs to attend an event with trustees, there are no expectations that senior staff must attend as well. Trustees and staff look at the calendar of community events and share responsibilities — not, all trying to attend all events. Also, the Board has moved to a mix of daytime/evening committee and Board meetings to allow for a better balance regarding work commitments.

Referring operations issues to the Superintendent – Often, when a trustee receives an email that is individually addressed to them, all trustees will have received the same email, as has the superintendent and others. When an issue comes in that is clearly operational, by policy, trustees immediately include the superintendent and a plan is made as to who is the most appropriate person to respond.

Saying “Thank You” to Staff –  From Board highlights of staff accomplishments, to a staff Christmas party (more than 200 staff members attended a district party in early December), to an annual retirement gathering, the Board continually works to acknowledge all staff — teachers, administrators and support staff, because this makes a huge difference in fostering the family type climate and culture in our schools and district. Our Board Chair will regularly write dozens of notes and send regular emails recognizing the work of staff.

Sharing concerns immediately with a Look to Problem-solving Together – When there is a problem or concern, one can either look to someone to blame, or work together to find a solution. In my eight years in West Vancouver, the latter has been the focus. Whether it is a tricky issue like budget reductions, or the process of specialty programs, or facility initiatives that have multiple stakeholders, trustees have worked with staff to find problem-solving solutions.

Being the eyes and ears in the community – We are always checking for tone and themes because trustees have a unique position in the community and district. They can be in a supermarket, on a soccer field, walking on the seawall, but they often receive ongoing and often unsolicited feedback about how we are doing in our schools. And, it is tricky to know what to do with this information. Again, in my eight years with the district, the trustees have not looked  to draw immediate conclusions from what they hear, but do share the information with the superintendent, not necessarily out of a need for action, but to assist the superintendent in their job — clear information is always a good thing.

Again, it is important to give a similar caveat that I gave in my earlier post on Board governance. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the Board’s work, but is intended to highlight some small things that can make a big difference. It is also important to reaffirm there are many ‘right ways’ to go about Board governance and the model we have built is one.

Finally, our model is an ongoing work in progress as we continually look to be better.


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