Getting on Board

How do you eliminate battles with your school district’s board of education? The keys are to understand their needs and communicate well.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. She can be reached at: ls@MomentumMedia.com.

Athletic Management, 17.5, August/September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1705/onboard.htm

The horror stories are not hard to find. At McQueen High School in Reno, Nev., the Board of Education placed a player on the varsity baseball team this spring even though the student had been cut by the coach during tryouts. The board acknowledged that tryouts had been fair—in fact, both the school board president and the district athletic director supervised the selection process. Yet the board required the student be added to the team nonetheless, refusing to release details on why it got involved or how it made its decision.

Also this spring, at Center High School in Antelope, Calif., a school board member, reportedly angry that his son wasn’t made the school’s starting quarterback, succeeded in ousting the highly-regarded football coach by getting one other board member to vote along with him to not renew the coach’s contract. The entire football staff resigned in protest, along with the athletic director and eight other coaches.

While these are extreme examples, most athletic directors have experienced their school board overriding some of their decisions or neglecting their needs. How can you work with your district’s board of education to ensure your role and authority are respected? In this article, we talk to athletic directors who have successful relationships with their school boards about how to make this group an ally and not a recurring headache. A school board member from Oregon also joins the discussion.

IS IT MY ROLE?
Your first thoughts may be, “Is it my job to work with the school board? And is it really worth the time?” Rusty Todd, Athletic Director at Ocean Township High School in Oakhurst, N.J., answers both questions with a resounding yes.

“When the board and athletic director have not developed a good relationship, the board can start making decisions that should belong to coaches or the athletic director,” says Todd. “In any athletic department, things can go wrong—coaches screw up, parents complain. But because I’ve developed a great relationship with our board, they’re behind me at those times. Not once have they reversed a decision I’ve made.

“I have colleagues whose school boards veto their hiring recommendations,” Todd continues. “Even in cases where my board has had a candidate in mind who they’d like to see hired as a coach, they have always taken my recommendation. That makes me feel at ease in my position, since I know they have confidence in me to make the right decisions.”

Kevin Bryant, Athletic Director at Aloha High School in Beaverton, Ore., and President of the Oregon Athletic Directors Association, offers more plusses of developing the relationship. “School board members are visible people,” he says. “Others know them and often listen to their opinions. When they know you well and respect the job you’re doing, they’ll carry a positive message to parents.”

At the same time, it’s important to know what your role is at your school and follow the proper channels of communication. For example, when Bryant first started at Aloha, his superintendent had a rule that any communication with the board had to go through the principal first. “With the superintendent I have now, I’m encouraged to speak directly to the board about any issue,” he says. “But it’s important to find out what the preferred protocol is in your district. If you don’t know, ask.”

Even when communicating directly with the board, athletic directors suggest keeping the superintendent and principal in the loop. “Anytime I talk with the board about an issue or get a phone call from a board member, I consider it part of my job to let the superintendent know,” says Craig Perry, District Athletic Director for Grand Forks (N.D.) Public Schools. “My rule is to never let my administrators get blindsided by anything.”

This piece of advice becomes even more important when potential problems arise. “The minute you know there is an issue, whether it’s a board member who is unhappy with a coach or a parent who is threatening to take a complaint to the board, immediately make the person you report to aware of what’s going on,” says Tim Slauter, Director of Athletics at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Ind. “Don’t be an island, because you are not in a position to take on the school board and win. You are going to need the support of your superiors, or you are going to be fighting a losing battle.”

KNOW WHAT THEY WANT
Along with understanding your role, a key to working more effectively with your school board is understanding what it wants from you. “School boards today are trying to make data-driven decisions,” says Ann Jacks, a school board member for the Beaverton School District, which includes Bryant’s Aloha High School. “When we’re setting athletics-related policies, we need good, strong data from athletic directors. When we don’t have that, it makes our job very difficult.”

Two years ago, the district faced a financial crunch that raised the possibility of cutting athletics completely. Ultimately, the school board chose to ask voters to approve a higher tax levy instead, based partly on Bryant’s input. “It was a difficult proposal to make, because parents already pay $150 per sport,” Jacks says. “But Kevin provided us with so much information on what was happening with state funding, what other districts were doing, and how that compared to our budget for athletics, that it made our job of going to the voters much easier.”

A decision on employing volunteer coaches required Todd to fill a similar role for his school board. “Historically, we haven’t allowed volunteer coaches,” he says. “This year, the board decided to revisit that policy and asked me to survey other schools in our conference. ‘Which ones use volunteer coaches? What are their criteria? How many coaches are on their staff?’ I wrote a comprehensive report for the board to answer all of its questions.

“In the end, our board set a policy allowing volunteers but requiring them to have the same credentials as our paid coaches,” he continues. “My part in the process was time-consuming, but it provided the board with the data it needed to make a good decision.”

Also know that, for most school boards, the bottom line in making decisions is academic achievement. “The board is obligated to focus on achievement in the classroom,” Jacks says. “Because of the No Child Left Behind legislation, our funding is tied to performance. So an athletic director who shows that student-athletes have better grades, fewer discipline problems in class, and drop out less often is definitely going to get the board’s attention.”

Bryant uses national data to help show these results to his school board. “The National Federation of State High School Associations has collected case studies and research reports illustrating how participating in sports helps students succeed,” he says. “I get those documents from the NFHS and put them into the hands of every board member.

“It helps if you almost think of the school board as part of the media,” Bryant continues. “I ask my coaches once a month for stories about how their athletes are learning life skills from their sport, and then I pass those stories on to our school board, by e-mail or in person. That helps them see that it’s not just about wins and losses, it’s about improving the lives of kids.”

Just as important, know the specific concerns of your school district. For example, in the communities surrounding Fairfax County, rising gang violence is a big problem, explains Paul Jansen, District Athletic Director for Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools. “So I point out to the board that sports help solve that problem for our community,” Jansen says. “The kids who are joining gangs want to belong. We can spend $10,000 to address gangs through the juvenile justice system, or for $100, I can put a kid on an athletic field and provide a safe and enriching environment.”

Along the same lines, find out the best way to present your information to the school board. Perry says that experience has taught him some techniques for providing information to the school board in a way that is most likely to get his viewpoint heard. “First, if you haven’t been to many board meetings, go before you are asked to go,” he advises. “Watch how the meetings operate and see what the dynamics are. That way, when it’s your turn to present information, you’ll already know how the board operates.”

Next, be as prepared as possible and remember that time is a valuable commodity for the board. “There are always a lot of things on the agenda for them to deal with, in what is essentially a volunteer job,” Perry says. “Get any information you can to them ahead of time if possible.

“I find it works best to make my presentation short and concise, and then open it up for them to ask questions about the areas they’d like to hear more about,” he continues. “If I give them a long report, I include a cover sheet of bulleted points that summarize the report’s most important aspects. And if they only want me to talk for 10 minutes, even if I have a lot of fantastic things to say, I keep things as simple as possible.”

Your demeanor can also go a long way toward earning respect for your perspective. “I’ve been to board meetings where administrators presenting information have been rude or not observed the proper protocol,” Perry says. “Understand that you are making a presentation to a group that makes decisions for your entire school. There is a level of respect you need to give them and a level of professionalism expected of you.”

Lastly, only provide information you are sure about. “If a board member asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, say so,” Perry says. “Attempting to answer questions when you don’t know the answer is just shooting yourself in the foot. Board members really appreciate it when an athletic director says, ‘I don’t have that information today, but I will find it and get it to you as soon as I can.’ And then follow up and make sure you do.”

ON THE SAME PAGE
Once school board members can see that you understand their concerns and are a trustworthy source of data, you can start working with them on preventing problems before they arise. The two areas to concentrate on are developing shared goals and agreeing upon procedures for parental complaints.

“Athletic directors and school boards that work well together have at least one thing in common,” says David Ernst, Communication Director for the New York State School Boards Association. “They have a shared answer to the question, ‘What are we trying to do as a school system, and how does athletics fit into that mission?’

“When there aren’t shared goals, problems happen,” he continues. “Maybe the athletic director thinks the board’s goal for the program is to win games, and the board views the job of athletics as developing character, or vice versa. Each side is operating from a different idea of what success is, and that can cause major difficulties.”

To arrive at shared goals, the athletic director and the board need to participate in a dialogue directly addressing the issue. Bryant took that step by creating a task force, including board members, to develop a concrete mission statement for athletics that everyone could support.

“At the end of the process, everyone agreed that the most important goal for athletics was to teach life skills to Aloha student-athletes,” Bryant says. “Now the board and I have the same definition of success. When I have a decision to make, I know that the board will back me as long as teaching life skills is my primary objective. And when they are approached with an athletics-related problem, I know they are operating from the same goal.”

You also need to get the board to agree on some procedures for handling parental complaints. “Several years ago, a group of parents approached our school board and tried to get a coach fired,” Perry says. “There was no policy in place to prevent it. After that situation, we created our ‘public concerns regarding extracurricular activities policy’ and put it in writing.”

The policy specifies that if parents have a problem, they first need to go to the coach. If the problem isn’t resolved, they need to send a letter to the high school athletic director, who has 30 days to respond. If the parent is still dissatisfied, they can send a letter to the district athletic director, and he has 30 days to respond. If they are still unhappy, they can send a letter to the superintendent, who will communicate directly with the school board if necessary.

“Having a written policy has been great for us,” Perry says. “If a parent calls a school board member, the board member’s first question is, ‘Have you talked to the coach as required by our policy?’ Eighty percent of problems are resolved when the parent talks to the coach.”

GAMETIME
The final strategy for working well with your school board is a simple one: Get board members to your sporting events. This gives you a chance to speak with them informally and better develop your relationship. It also allows them to see both the positives and challenges of your program in a hands-on way. And it almost always makes them more supportive of athletics over the long run.

To make sure there are school board members in the stands at Aloha, Bryant provides them with a free pass to all events. Jacks says the pass gives her extra incentive to attend games. “It definitely gets me out to more events,” she says. “It’s not just the money it saves me—it’s the message that they really want me there.”

Making sure each board member has a schedule of upcoming contests, fundraisers, and special events, as well as issuing special invitations to them, can underscore that message. “I’ll send e-mails to board members saying, ‘We have a great basketball game coming up this weekend and we’d love to see you there,’” says Perry.

Jansen extends special invitations to board members to accompany teams on trips. “We’ll call up a board member and say, ‘We’re traveling to Richmond. Would you like to come?’” he says. “Then if the principal and I are having dinner at a restaurant before the game, I’ll invite the board member to join us. Whenever there is a chance to let them feel part of something special, we do it.”

When Bryant sees a school board member at an event, he makes sure he thanks them for coming. “And if a board member attends a sports banquet, I’ll ask them to stand up, make sure coaches and athletes know who they are, and thank them for what they do for our school,” he says.

He also makes time to talk with them, no matter what the event is. “I’ve found that the most significant communication happens when I connect with our board members informally, which often occurs at sporting events,” he says. “It allows for an ongoing conversation that makes our communication stronger.”

Jacks agrees. “That’s when we have our really productive conversations,” she says. “I’ll be at a game and Kevin will stop by and say, ‘Have you heard that we’re having trouble getting funding for this project?’ I also take those opportunities to let him know about concerns I’ve heard or calls I’ve gotten. It’s really the ongoing conversations that make our communication work.”

BOARD APPRECIATION
Whether you’re handling problems or simply trying to improve relationships, keep in mind that school board members have a complicated and tough job. “In some ways, the board has an impossible assignment,” Jansen says. “They’re trying to balance the needs of all the district’s children and the expectations of all the district’s parents in a nearly volunteer position with a limited budget. When you’re working with them, it’s important to appreciate that they have a huge task.”

“The good news is, in almost 20 years in this business, I have had very few tough confrontations with school boards,” adds Slauter. “I think that’s because most board members have their hearts in the right place and are trying to do the best they can for all students. They’re working hard to make our school a really great place for our kids, and if we work to build stronger relationships with them, we’ll all be better able to reach that goal.”


Sidebar:
Child on the Team
One of the trickiest situations an athletic director may encounter is when a school board member has a child on an athletic team. Kevin Bryant, Athletic Director at Aloha High School in Beaverton, Ore., recommends communicating with the child’s coach well before any tension arises. “There can be some nervousness on the coach’s part, regardless of whether the kid is the star player or isn’t seeing much playing time,” he says. “Either way, people are going to be talking about it.

“We’ve found that problems can be avoided by having the coach, the principal, and myself talk at the start of the season,” Bryant continues. “It’s just a quick conversation where I’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s be aware that we have a school board member’s child on this team. To avoid any issues down the road, let’s agree that we’re not going to have a different set of rules for this player, and we’re going to back each other up and communicate with each other if anything comes up.’”

Talking directly with the board member can be appropriate as well, particularly if problems do arise. “It can work well for the coach or athletic director to have a dialogue with the board member directly,” says Ann Jacks, a school board member in Beaverton, Ore. “Let him or her know, ‘We realize you have two roles here, as a parent and as a board member. When it comes to your son or daughter, we believe it’s going to work best for your child if you keep your role as parent primary. If something occurs that involves policy or procedure, you might need to put your school board hat on, but first and foremost, you’re a parent.’”