The relationship between school boards and the superintendents they hire is continuously evolving, with built-in opportunities for issues to be fruitful, fractious, or both. But the leaders of the two national organizations serving these groups believe working together is more critical than ever.
Anne L. Bryant, National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) executive director, and Dan Domenech, who holds the same position for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), discussed board/superintendent relations and many other topics during a 60-minute session at AASA’s annual conference in Houston.
The annual session originally was titled “The Changing Nature of School Board Governance and Leadership,” but the AASA audiences knew it would be another edition of “The Dan and Anne Show.” (Billing is reversed at NSBA’s conference.) And while that changing landscape was covered during the 60 minutes, the informal conversation also served as an overview of Bryant’s NSBA career.
Bryant, who was the executive director of the American Association of University Women prior to coming to NSBA, said she is proudest of three things during a 16-year tenure that will end with her retirement in September:
• The Key Work of School Boards, an eight-part framework for governance launched in 1999.
• The creation of the Center for Public Education, created in 2006 to “translate research that’s not Democrat, not Republican, not spin, but telling the truth in public education.”
• The organization’s advocacy work on Capitol Hill. “We have a strong lobbying team,” she said. “When we send out an alert and 6,000 to 8,000 school board members e-mail their members of Congress, that’s power. And we need that grassroots advocacy now.”
Both Bryant and Domenech expressed concerns with Congress’ failure to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as well as increased “federal intrusion” into local schools.
“It’s awful. It’s terrible,” Bryant said of the politics that have seeped into public education since she came to NSBA in 1996. “It’s gone from bantering to bickering, from back slapping to back stabbing, and there’s a meaner sense out there. … On my pessimistic days I wonder if we’ll ever get a good reauthorization of ESEA. On my good days, I think we might.”
Domenech agreed with Bryant that “clearly we’re at a point where politics is doing more harm than good.”
“A lot has to do with the fact that the politicians who are trying to lead the charge of education reform are not focusing on the very things they value,” said Domenech, who was superintendent of school districts in New York and Virginia prior to coming to AASA in 2008.
Other highlights from the session:
• Bryant discussed her interview with the search committee, which was seeking a successor to Thomas A. Shannon. “I said I wanted to know if they were an organization that was about defending school boards or an organization that wants to make school boards more effective, and they asked me to leave the room,” she said.
“When I was asked to come back in the room, the committee members said, ‘We’ve been an organization about defending school boards. We want to be an organization that’s about effective school board governance.’ And the board has never waivered from that. They have been absolutely committed to the concept of effective governance, and that is what has driven me and driven our board.”
• After taking the job, Bryant met with state association executive directors, presidents, the NSBA staff and board of directors. She also met with executive directors for the various education organizations that are based in the Washington, D.C. area.
“I wanted to know why school board members run for office, what keeps them there, what motivates them, what keeps them satisfied, and it became clear after hundreds of conversations that they cared deeply about student achievement,” she said. “They really wanted to talk about student achievement.”
She recalled talking to Paul Houston, AASA’s former executive director, after the Key Work’s release, noting that he pulled together ten superintendents to work on creating a section of the guidebook that focused on the board/superintendent roles in creating a vision for districts.
• Collective bargaining can be one of the most contentious issues for school boards and superintendents. Bryant, noting that each state is different, said she is “very proud of how our state school boards associations have gone out on a limb and taken a lead role on this issue.”
“There is a fine line between protecting the jobs of teachers and some of the protections that were hurting education,” she said. “There’s a different culture in every state, and what we’ve got to focus on … is collective bargaining for student achievement.”
• Domenech noted that AASA was founded in 1865 — 75 years before NSBA — and “for many, many years was the only game in town.” Today, both executives are active in the Learning First Alliance, an organization of 16 education associations that meets monthly to discuss key issues affecting K-12 public schools.
“There’s this growing sense that there needs to be a voice for public education,” Bryant said. “We’re trying to do it, very often very individually, but we don’t have the resources that unfortunately that the critics of public education seem to have and bring to the table. It’s so important to come together and speak with one voice. We have to do more of that.”
Both Bryant and Domenech, who will have one more segment of this show at NSBA’s annual conference in April in Boston, said they are looking forward to a merged conference between the two organizations starting in 2013.
“I think it will be important,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to show that our organizations are in sync and working to make sure the board and superintendent see itself as a team.”