Don McAdams wrote the book on school boards. In fact, he wrote three of them.
His counsel over the past six years has helped transform the Fort Wayne Community Schools board from a group of well-intentioned trustees into a strong board continually pushing the state’s largest district toward clearly defined goals. But McAdams’ advice would serve any Indiana district well as new school board terms begin.
The former president of the Houston Independent School District board offers research, case studies and more to refute missteps – micromanagement, conflicts of interest, failure to lead – that occur too frequently in Indiana schools. McAdams was in Fort Wayne this month for a closed-door training retreat for FWCS board members, but he shared some of his views on reform governance in an interview. It’s good advice and sorely needed by some area boards.
In addition to three terms as a trustee in the nation’s seventh-largest school district, McAdams has been a college professor, university president, management consultant and non-profit director. His passion for school district governance springs from his belief that the most powerful agents for change are boards of education.
School boards are the most challenging of all governance bodies, McAdams said, They are very politicized. They operate on center stage in the political arena. Board members are elected as representatives, then expected to act as trustees. That’s a real difficult mental switch.
Then there are the challenges the boards face.
The world is changing very rapidly, and schools have to keep up, he said. It’s a very emotional issue – you’re talking about people’s kids, their tax dollars. People’s lives are affected more immediately by the decisions of a school board than they are by almost anything else.
Then there are the public expectations.
People come to you when you’re elected and say, You told me you would make things better – well, here’s how I want you to make things better: We need to get this principal fired, or this band leader fired, or we want to get this contract for our relative, or everybody needs to learn reading this way.’
A school board’s relationship with its superintendent is the key, according to McAdams.
Some people think management oversight is making the decisions, or at least criticizing the decisions that have been made, he said. That’s micromanagement. What management oversight is is assuring yourself and the public that the systems have integrity, with the appropriate checks and balances and performance indicators, and then looking at the results.
It is the results from all decisions, he said, that should be weighed by the board in evaluating the superintendent’s performance.
The worst thing is if you try to get involved in the management of the district, you will rob yourself of the most powerful opportunity, and that’s the ability to hold the superintendent responsible for results, he said.
Principles in play
Fort Wayne board member Julie Hollingsworth, who is beginning her third year on the FWCS board, said McAdams’ guidance has been helpful.
He talks about working above the line’ and below the line’ – above is governance and below is management, she said. The role of the board is to set policy and govern, to choose a superintendent, evaluate a superintendent, represent the district to the public and be the eyes and ears – but once you hire the superintendent, you have to let the superintendent manage; you can’t do it.
One of McAdams’ guidelines is for board members to visit schools only with advance notice. Hollingsworth, herself a retired math teacher, coach and administrator, said she first heard the advice from a friend who worked for a non-profit board.
I wanted to visit all of the schools, but she told me I should never drop in unannounced, because she would hate it if one of her board members did that.
Hollingsworth has kept her goal of visiting schools – she’s been to about 40 of them – but she only goes after arranging the visit with the administration, keeping the visit to about 45 minutes. She also heeds McAdams’ advice to remind someone with a complaint about the schools to speak first with the principal or another responsible administrator.
McAdams’ training was a positive factor in approval of the Fort Wayne district’s building plan, she said. He advised board members they needed to be unanimous in their support before taking the project to voters in a referendum.
If you don’t, every possible critic out there is going to say, well, so and so doesn’t support it. So it was really important for us that everyone on the board supported the decision to keep the first phase of the project at $119 million.
Hollingsworth said it was McAdams’ influence on board President Mark GiaQuinta that likely made a difference.
Mark was determined the second time around that it should be the board’s project – board-led in developing it and the board should lead in promoting it, she said. I think his motivation came from McAdams’ training.
GiaQuinta is an unabashed admirer of McAdams’ work and admits that mistakes he’s made as a board member happened when he ignored the advice.
Model for EACS
With three newly elected board members, this month marked a new beginning but the same old challenges for the East Allen County Schools board. From halting steps toward progress, the board has continued to backslide into infighting, micromanaging and damaging public disagreements. The EACS board has participated in training sessions with professional facilitators, but individual members still seem unable to grasp what their proper roles should be.
The board’s first meeting of the year was not promising. When Superintendent Karyle Green announced she will leave at the end of her current contract period, a veteran board member insisted it was time to do precisely what McAdams advises against – micromanage.
This puts more responsibility on the board, board member Stephen Terry said. Things have changed radically, and the board will step up accordingly.
Fortunately, other board members reminded Terry that Green is still the superintendent and that her responsibilities still apply until her contract expires.
But Terry isn’t alone in speaking or acting counter to the good-governance principles McAdams describes. The entire board supported a decision last year to hire a former East Allen superintendent to conduct focus groups and make recommendations. The poorly administered and highly critical report was a damaging setback for the district, which had just closed schools and restructured programs.
The East Allen board has too often attracted members with personal agendas – a conflict McAdams describes as the most challenging.
They don’t want to change, he said of the mindset of such members. The reason they are on that board is to do something for the community they represent – to keep a school from closing, or to get a contract for a certain business, or to enact some radical reform or to stop sex education. It can be a liberal, conservative or radical agenda. They are on the road to being a big shot and they play every little angle they can to enhance their power.
McAdams said the best way to address those personalities is for the board to adopt a set of operating procedures.
The one board member may continue to act differently, but now there’s a protocol and an opportunity for peer pressure. The president, the other board members can say, Wait a minute, this is not our protocol.’ That peer pressure, sometimes publicly administered, is a good lever, because you really can’t expect the superintendent to discipline the loose-cannon board member.
The primary reason top administrators leave is because of the challenge of working with difficult board members, he said.
A lot of people run for the board, thinking it’s a mess and they can make it better, and they don’t understand how and make it worse, he said. Or, they do know how, but it’s slow and incremental. It’s not snap your fingers and it’s done – that doesn’t happen. School districts don’t turn on a dime. It takes years to get in place the right systems, the right people, the right culture.
‘A better pie’
McAdams’ own school board tenure stands as a model for service. When he was elected, he said he heard conflicting messages: The superintendent told McAdams it was his job to support her and that she, in turn, would help him look good to his constituents. Constituents told him it was McAdams’ job to get principals removed; to save their children from alternative disciplinary programs. School reformers told him it was his job to bash the public school system and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the modern age.
Then, my predecessor told me my job was to protect southwest Houston – make sure it got its share of the money, its share of the good teachers, its share of the good principals – because the district as a whole was unsalvageable and I at least needed to protect the little greenhouse that was southwest Houston from this larger entity, which could not be reformed. He said, Don, you cannot make a better pie. Just make sure we get our piece of it.’
But McAdams decided he could make a better pie and began studying and working on ways to improve board performance. Under the non-profit Center for Reform of School Systems, which he ran until he retired last year, McAdams has advised thousands of school board members across the U.S., raising expectations for performance that surely have been a factor in widespread efforts to improve public schools.
His work is showing results in the Fort Wayne district, and the guidelines he offers could help all Indiana school boards meet their responsibility to encourage achievement.