Micromanagement. Say the word and superintendents and school boards get uncomfortable. Micromanagement is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of School Boards (the full slate will be addressed in a future post). Micromanagement appears to be what gets a lot of school districts in hot water with AdvancEd, the accreditation agency for schools and districts. And just to be clear, micromanaging problems are not the exclusive domain of school districts, as micromanaging boards likely top the list of complaints of CEOs and top managers in most industries.
By the end of this post, you should have a good idea of what micromanagement looks like, why board members do it, why it’s bad for school districts, and how to get board members to stop it.
So what IS micromanagement, also referred to as “board interference”? And whose responsibility is it to stop boards from interfering with responsibilities assigned to the superintendent?
Simply put, micromanaging is when board members take on tasks and/or decisions that should be left to the superintendent or other employees of a school district. That usually means day-to-day operations like hiring and firing personnel (teachers and principals and coaches) or giving direction or orders to personnel other than the superintendent. Specific examples are given a bit further down.
In a perfect world, board members would police themselves and each other to keep the board out of micromanaging. In the real world, it too often is the accreditation agency, AdvancEd, that forces the school board out of its micromanagement practices. [Read this post for more about boards that overstep their bounds.]
First, a little history and why this topic may be currently of interest to Alabamians.
The most recent board to be accused of micromanagement is Birmingham City Schools’ nine-member elected board of education. AdvancEd’s CEO, Mark Elgart, has notified the district that their district accreditation process has been put on hold until issues of concern with school governance are settled. Elgart awaits a response from the Birmingham school board and if sufficient response is not received by October 1, a formal investigation will be launched into the district’s governance.
Sadly, Birmingham is not the only district in Alabama that has wrestled with micromanaging boards of education in recent years. Just this past January, Tuscumbia City Schools were warned by AdvancEd to straighten out their governance issues or face probationary status after a special team was sent in to review concerns raised by the community. It appears that Tuscumbia’s school board is making progress, however, and for now AdvancEd will continue to monitor their progress, with Tuscumbia’s school district being ordered to submit a final report in January 2013. Interestingly, Tuscumbia’s board, much like Birmingham’s appears to not know why they were being reviewed in the first place. However, once the local newspaper’s information requests were granted, specific allegations of micromanagement were revealed.
What Micromanagement Looks Like
Before we begin, take a look at this list of roles and responsibilities for boards and superintendents from the Alabama Association of School Boards. And read the article that begins on page 26 of the Fall 2011 Alabama School Boards journal for a better understanding of what boards should be doing.
From the article:
Question: How many board members does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: None. The board’s job is to say, “Let there be light.” The superintendent’s job is to choose the best light bulbs and delegate a staff member to install them. Then, the board determines if the light shines bright enough.
So if the board goes out and buys the light bulbs and orders someone to install them, that is micromanagement.
Here are some other examples:
(a) A board member visits a school to check on the installation of new carpeting after a teacher (friend of the board member) cites a problem with the installation. When a problem is found, the board member calls the contractor to direct the repair.
(b) A board member has a recommendation for a new principal for the high school after the current principal has retired. The board member orders the human resource director to interview that person for the position.
(c) A board member gets a call from a resident asking why his son doesn’t have a math textbook. The board member drives to the textbook warehouse for the district and orders the warehouse manager to deliver math textbooks to the school. Or the board member calls the superintendent to direct the purchase and delivery of math textbooks to the school.
(d) A board member directs the district purchasing manager to utilize a specific local company that sells iPads to fill the district’s order (it was a small order and didn’t rise to the level of needing to be bid).
(e) A board member believes her local high school principal is long overdue for a raise and lobbies the superintendent until the superintendent gives in to get the board member off his back.
(f) A board member is contacted by a resident about a new reading program at their child’s school and that the books being used are two grade levels below the school’s previous reading program. The board member calls the principal at the school to ask specifics about the program and report the problems shared by the resident.
(g) A board member directs the superintendent to add an academy (e.g., finance or engineering) to a high school within the board member’s district because another high school in the school district has one.
In each case, the board member believed it was his job to solve the problem and took steps to do so. But the board member should have either encouraged the complainant to follow the chain of command or the board member should have contacted the superintendent directly to ask for her help. The board member shouldn’t be directing specific action (as in the case of the principal’s raise or the addition of the academy) but rather should ensure the vision and strategic plan crafted and approved by the board allow the superintendent to do those things in accordance with the plan.
Why School Board Members Micromanage
It’s doubtful you will find an admitted Micromanager. In all of the articles written about school boards and micromanagement, not one school board member has admitted guilt of this offense. In its Tuscumbia review, AdvancEd revealed that a board member stated that his “passion and zeal” for the position had been mistaken for interference.
Micromanaging doesn’t mean that board members are evil or do so with malice in their heart. In fact, quite the opposite is usually true. Board members most likely interfere only because they believe the task needs to be done and no one is paying enough attention to getting it done. Most likely they have been contacted by one of their constituents about a problem that has yet to be dealt with even though repeated attempts have been made to remedy the problem. Most likely the board member feels compelled to help the person because no one has yet helped them. Elected boards feel the pull to respond and help even more so than appointed boards.
In this 2008 article from The School Administrator, Donald MacAdams puts forth two reasons why board members micromanage: “individual board members trying to solve problems for constituents, and board members individually or collectively trying to influence major management decisions”.
Board members want to help the schools and their community, and that’s generally why they step up to serve in the first place (unless they’re simply using the position as a political stepping-stone—another of the Seven Deadly Sins of School Board Members).
In this article about how micromanaging boards affect non-profit organizations, another reason given for why boards micromanage is fear:
At the root of virtually all micromanagement is fear. Fear that if they don’t do it, no one else will (or no one will do it as well). Fear that the organization will fail, will have horrible things happen to it. Fears about money, about bad press. When individuals behave badly it is usually because they feel their comfort or security is threatened in some way. When boards behave badly (and micromanagement is just one symptom of this), they are usually concerned about the health and safety of the organization. If you can keep in mind that boards micromanage because they care and therefore have fears and concerns, and NOT because they are power hungry control freaks, then you will be better equipped to get them to stop.
Why It’s Bad for School Districts for Board Members to Micromanage
Any organization suffers when lines of authority are blurred. Employee loyalty is pulled from one authority to another. From the AASB’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Board Members, number seven, “Know Your Role”:
Board members intent on micromanaging can be highly disruptive to a school system. When school board members make surprise visits to schools to evaluate teachers themselves, breeze past secretaries to barge into administrators’ offices unannounced or sit in on job applicants’ interviews, they throw the system into chaos.
How School Board Members Can Avoid Micromanaging
Superintendents, particularly in large districts, cannot know everything that is going on in a district. Additionally, school board members are out and about in the district and are likely to engage in conversations about schools. Residents are very likely to share their concerns with those board members. So what should a board member do when a resident has asked for his help?
For more on this topic, I reached out to Earl Cooper, current president of the Hoover City School board of education. Hoover’s five-member board is appointed by the Hoover City Council to five-year terms, one board appointment each year. Hoover’s board members are all at-large appointments, no districts.
Cooper was appointed to the Hoover City Board of Education in 2008, and is in his second term as president of the board, elected to the presidency by his fellow board members. Cooper is by all accounts an ideal board member. Because the Hoover board was dealing with issues of micromanagement at the time of his appointment, Cooper was aware of problems with micromanagement and has worked to stay within his proper board role.
I asked Cooper specifically how he avoids micromanaging when Hoover citizens or employees of the district ask for his help resolving a problem with their school. “It’s easy. I just remind myself it’s not my job to fix it,” he answered. “It’s the superintendent’s job.” Simple enough. Cooper acknowledged that it is then the board’s collective job to hold the superintendent accountable for proper functioning of the entire school district. And the way to hold a superintendent accountable is through the yearly evaluation process.
Here’s an article from the Mobile Press-Register about the struggles that the Mobile County school district has dealt with over the years and how the board was successfully avoiding micromanagement. From the article:
School board micromanagement landed the entire Mobile County Public School System on probation in 2002 and later led to the firing of the former superintendent (Harold Dodge). “(Board members) tend to walk up to the line,” (Superintendent) Nichols said, “but they are showing strength because they haven’t stepped over it.” The board members don’t give the superintendent direct orders, Nichols explained, but they will call him, tell him about a problem and ask him to address it. “They push, nudge, urge me to get things done in their district, but they never direct me,” Nichols said Thursday, as the board wrapped up a retreat. Nichols said they haven’t yet objected to how he chooses to handle such problems, even when he decides that nothing needs to be done. And he said they don’t hold a grudge against him for bringing things before the board for a vote that they don’t agree with.
In his book, What School Boards Can Do: Reform Governance for Urban Schools, Donald MacAdams emphasizes that board members should never become problem solvers.
“Board members must listen to complaints, recommend direct conversations between complainants and front-line managers, or refer complaints to the superintendent following established protocols. That’s it.
No matter how obvious the solution may be; no matter the board member’s desire to be helpful; no matter the importance of the constituent—close friend, neighborhood activist, campaign volunteer, or state legislator—board members must not assume the constituent is right or suggest a solution to any district employee, including the superintendent.”
That’s pretty clear. Board members should take the time to learn their district’s procedures for resolving problems. If a process does not currently exist, MacAdams recommends that boards work with their superintendent to develop a process that is suitable to both the board and the superintendent.
Any procedure that is developed should include a way to document requests brought forward by board members. Successful information management systems are beneficial to ensure the problem is ultimately addressed and also to track problem areas within the district.
Training is helpful, too. The Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) offers board member training on proper roles and responsibilities through its School Board Member Academy. To determine whether your local school board members have received training through the Academy, you are encouraged to contact your local school district’s central office and ask! The ASC is working to gain access to the database of Alabama school board members who have received training, and we hope that the AASB will publish a database on their web site in light of training becoming mandatory due to the passage of the School Board Governance Improvement Act of 2012. [For full coverage of the AASB’s look at the Act, read Alabama School Boards Summer 2012 issue, beginning on page 6.]
The AASB endorses this Code of Ethics for Alabama’s school board members, which includes a pledge to “delegate authority for the administration of the schools to the superintendent”. As part of the School Board Governance Improvement Act, local school boards will be required to adopt a Board member Code of Ethics before April 1, 2013.
Is Micromanagement Ever Acceptable?
In a word, no. If a school board cannot get its superintendent to pay attention to the issues the community is bringing to board members, and those issues are of a serious nature and could seriously undermine the overarching goals of the school district, it is certainly within the board’s discretion to make adjustments at the superintendent position, unless the superintendent holds an elected position. Additionally, boards should seek assistance from the AASB or the Alabama State Department of Education.
How Can You Stop Micromanagement by School Board Members?
Superintendents are the ones most likely to recognize micromanagement by school board members. A superintendent should address the concern directly with the board member, and provide specific examples of behavior he considers to be micromanagement. Additionally, fellow board members should approach each other directly about concerns about micromanaging behaviors.
But what if the superintendent and the board don’t recognize they are interfering and it leads to trouble? The worst case scenario is when the local media pick up on the behaviors before the board has been given an opportunity to recognize and correct their behavior. At that point, everyone gets on the defensive and behaviors are difficult to address without getting outside help.
Fortunately, there is outside help: the AASB. The AASB will visit a board on its home turf and provide training to a board about what micromanagement looks like and how to avoid it. Just this past January, training was offered to all school board members in the state to help them identify and avoid micromanagement—and the only cost was for the board member’s meal! [Just for fun, you can download the AASB’s BoardCast app to keep up with happenings in the Alabama school board arena!]
Additionally, AdvancEd can provide assistance if a formal request is made by the appropriate personnel, usually the superintendent or the board itself.
Better School Board Members Mean Stronger Schools
Great leadership doesn’t happen by accident. Great public schools don’t happen by accident, either. Board members are the apex of a school system’s leadership, and without trained, well-intentioned board members, much can go awry. Acknowledging that (hopefully) most board members step to the board table in an effort to help, with proper training, information and support, coupled with well-functioning processes to address board member concerns, micromanagement could become a thing of the past. Perhaps that’s too much to hope for, but let’s keep our expectations high, ok?
Prologue: JUST FOR FUN: Micromanagement Across the Country
Here’s just a sampling of stories from Georgia, Seattle, San Diego, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina. Google “accreditation probation micromanagement school board” for more…..