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A Study of School Board & Superintendent Relations: Strategies for Building Trust in the Mistrustful Context of K-12 Public Education

  • Author(s): Bowers, Kelly Dawn
  • Advisor(s): Mintrop, Heinrich
  • et al.
Abstract

Abstract

A Study of School Board & Superintendent Relations:

Strategies for Building Trust in the Mistrustful Context of K-12 Public Education

By

Kelly Dawn Bowers

Doctor of Education

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Heinrich Mintrop, Chair

As illuminated in my study, which is only a small subset of the larger public education governance system, the mounting political pressure that school boards and superintendents face does not seem to be diminishing. It is well documented that boards under fire from constituents often make the superintendent the scapegoat, which undermines trust and threatens their strength of relationship with an uneven power dynamic. Whether attributed to general dissatisfaction with American governance which leaves superintendents subject to the political whims and winds of school boards (Lutz & Iannaccone, 1978); their increasingly limited sphere of influence in an era of high stakes external accountability (Howell, 2005), or the acute pressures of the politics of personalism (Feuerstein & Opfer, 1998), the odds of forming solid, trusting relational bonds are stacked against them. Over the past few decades, there has been a growing movement in many fields and industries, including public education, to develop new, collaborative models and approaches to managing and governing, as an alternative to more adversarial, bureaucratic and top-down methods (Ansell & Gash, 2008). With this move away from competitive toward collaborative governance, relationship building at all levels has taken on new importance.

In this case study, I examined the conflict-ridden relationship dynamic and tense micropolitical climate inherited by two superintendents and boards, within a general context of distrust directed toward public education and elected officials, which is further exacerbated by negative interactions with their immediate predecessors. Using Bryk and Schneider’s (2002) concept of relational trust which was developed in other public school system settings, as an ideal measure, I was able to gather evidence of substantive change in the tenor and positive quality of the board/superintendent relationship over time. My findings highlighted two newly hired superintendents who took stock of their somewhat damaged and mistrustful board/ superintendent relationship status upon entry and strategically cultivated relational trust with their respective school boards, as substantiated by increased and genuine displays of mutual respect, personal regard, integrity and competence in their public and private interactions.

My findings indicated that a board/superintendent relationship is not static but malleable, and with concentrated focus and customized strategic intervention by a new superintendent, a previously damaged governance team relationship can be repaired and trust restored. Even in a high-trust situation, however, my conclusions divulged cautionary implications, as a board and superintendent that become too close, too trusting in the public’s perception or reality, risk becoming insular or out of touch with the larger constituency they represent and serve.

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