Politics: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Board Buzz, the NSBA (National School Board Association) blog, is asking questions about the legitimacy of political contributions linked to school personnel and Matthew K. Tabor has asked a relevant question to which I replied on his blog. Inasmuch as I’m committed to the study of boardsmanship that improves student achievement; leadership; and the general welfare of school districts, I decided to cross-post that reply here.

The question:

Can a superintendent contribute to a board member’s campaign?

My response:

Possibly. All the arguments about individuals participating freely in a democracy — on their own time and off-site — apply to the supe as well as anyone else. But there are big downsides.

I’d like to rephrase the question and look at it from a different angle. Should a superintendent contribute to a board member’s campaign? Emphasis on “should.”

Let’s consider the case of John Jones, superintendent of Onagonka Schools in northern Minnesota, who is thinking about making a contribution to a board candidate’s campaign (fictional character, fictional district).

From a board members perspective (I’m in my second four-year term), John’s exercise of whatever rights he has in this domain would signal me that he isn’t thinking strategically, and therefore, might actually be the wrong person for the job of superintendent. After all, supe’s have to be smart and savvy. It’s a tough job, and anyone who can’t figure the angles in this case doesn’t inspire my confidence.

Here’s why…

First, good superintendent-board relationships lead to high accomplishment in any district. Ingredients include honesty, transparency, and impartiality. “Integrity” on the part of all involved would be a good word to cover the bases.

Second, that relationship is fragile and not easily maintained. It’s hard enough to strive for perfection, but unforgivable to purposefully detour into stupidity.

From a political point of view (and I really hate that part), what if John’s candidate loses? Has the supe put himself out on a limb? Has he fulfilled his duty to maintain the impartiality of his relationship with the board? John has to work hard on mending fences with the new board member, and could easily have avoided this situation by staying out of it.

If John’s candidate wins, not only will the board’s perception of John change, but they will be looking askance at the new board member as well! “What’s going on here?” they’ll be thinking. Is John trying to “pack the court?”

Speaking of courts, the “court of public opinion” made up of “the taxpayers” will be another body looking with suspicion upon this turn of events.

Finally, since the board is the body that hires and fires the likes of John, and determines his remuneration, he might be seen by the court of public opinion, and possibly the state ethics commission, as trying to influence the conditions of his employment.

Any smart supe would shy away from contributing to a board member’s campaign. Any experienced board member would nod in agreement.

Cross-posted (in adapted form) on Matthew K. Tabor’s blog and Board Buzz, the blog of the National School Board Association.

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2 thoughts on “Politics: Where Do You Draw the Line?

  1. I agree. Our supe just got a 14% raise,which was more than I made my first year of teaching. (about double that!) Many of us in the classroom are wondering about the supe’s relationship with the board, and not in a nice way.

  2. You’re not alone with those perceptions, Margaret. When I was in the classroom, I’d have been thinking along those lines too.

    Having had the opportunity to hire an outstanding superintendent for our district three years ago (he’s in his fourth year), and going into my fifth year as a board member, I have some perspectives that ordinarily are not communicated well enough to constituents and stakeholders (overused word — sorry).

    We recently renewed our supe’s contract and brought his pay and benefits up to a level comparable with the three larger districts in our state. None of those supes have greater responsibilities than our guy — they’ve all got BIG jobs.

    Long story short, I wanted to communicate my reasons for voting for the contract renewal and raise so that the word could get out to the community about the board’s thinking and our reasons for acting.

    I read a statement at the board meeting when we voted on the matter, and gave a copy of the statement to reporters. I also used that material for a couple of blog posts here and on my company blog.

    If you’re curious, go to the archives and find my posts for June 16, 18, and 25 (in that order). My thoughts on the matter are pretty well lined out there.

    First and foremost, I’m an educator. I don’t relish the political aspects of board work, but it was to me a no-brainer to be as transparent as possible on that issue (and everything else, for that matter).

    Thanks for bring up that subject!

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