Managing conflict between school board members
“Board members should work together in a spirit of harmony, respect, and
cooperation, despite differences of opinion.”
– Pennsylvania School Board Code of Conduct
School boards can become tense, and their public meetings put their hostilities in broad daylight, deeply eroding the trust integral to their countless constructive alliances in the community. Resourceful, engaged constituents even flee the public school system, leaving it poorer in every conceivable sense of the term. School board conflicts are actually quite widespread, so it is possible to learn some strategies to move past interpersonal threats to good governance from other districts.
Types of Conflict
Upon studying small-group conflict on school boards and other public and nonprofit boards, University of Wisconsin political scientist Michael Ford sees it as a matter of “common sense” to expect that the highly politicized nature of school boards would make them actually become impediments to student-desired outcomes. His studies show that such conflict correlates with low student performance, especially in urban areas, but that conflicts do not necessarily increase with ideological diversity on boards or with high rates of board turnover (Ford).
If a board can’t manage the nasty conflicts, it might try to avoid all conflicts, at great cost. “Conflict,” Ford observes, “is at the heart of democratic governance” – in a good way: Without disagreement, a board may simply rubber-stamp administrative proposals. A conflict-averse board could avoid considering good policy options for fear of their potential divisiveness. Consistent board unanimity can signal groupthink, which removes boards from the concerns of their constituents.
Such avoidance of conflict reflects how truly pernicious toxic conflicts can become. As opposed to generative conflicts between reasonable members of boards with tools for defusing tensions, inflexible interpersonal conflicts can kill the group's spirit of cooperation, derail the business of the board and raise public suspicion. Every school board needs a toolkit of techniques for taming board hostilities to keep the group focused on the objectives of the district.
Conflict Management Tools
Learning from years of experience, school boards, political scientists, seasoned superintendents and board consultants have identified solutions that have brought many districts from the brink of dissolution back to productive work on behalf of the mission of the district. These are their suggestions.
- Pause. When a conflict erupts, it evokes heated responses. Adrenaline surges, making it natural for you to take a side, silence one party or raise other sensitive issues that have been on the back burner. Long-time New York board consultant Brian Benzel has found that yielding to that impulse only adds fuel to the fire. When you or another board member is personally attacked, he recommends staying calm above all else. A hasty response can add to the problem. Rather, he suggests that you, as a fellow board member, not interrupt, take some time (even weeks) before crafting a response and talk it over with friends. You will come back with a more mature, reflective response that does not fan the flames of hostility. By then, too, time may have healed the wound.
- Take the temperature. After decades as a school superintendent, Peggy Ondrovich recommends discerning how serious a conflict really is. More often than not, in her experience, it is temporary; people just want to stir the pot: 'Sometimes the horse dies' (Ondrovich). Consider also the track record of the parties to the conflict: Do they have a history of dropping personal grievances to advance the mission? Or are they inflexible? Time and discernment will take care of most conflicts, but those that remain must be addressed head-on.
- Conduct third-party mediation. For the conflicts that remain, the board chair should arrange a third-party mediation, where the two parties to the conflict meet in a safe, public place with a trained facilitator. Most state school board associations offer such services, as do private consultants. The mediation should do two things: 1) seek common ground; and (2) provide ample listening for both sides. Common ground can redirect attention to shared goals, and listening might be enough to satisfy the disputants. People want to be heard; sometimes, that's all they need. Take care of that, and they may no longer feel a need to forge onward with their grievance.
Those measures become necessary once things have escalated to a full-fledged confrontation. Long-term observation of school boards suggests some additional steps that can make such an eruption less likely in the first place. A board can do three things to reduce the risk of destructive conflicts in the future:
- Recruit team players. What makes conflict escalate and become intractable is not the level of disagreement on the board, but the personality trait of inflexibility. If even a couple of a board's members operate by the playbook of 'My way or the highway!' it's only a matter of time before an issue whips up their inclination to dig in their heels and claim the high road. A team player will have a history of fighting for her views and then supporting the group's decision when she is clearly outvoted. Past is prologue; when recruiting members, look for demonstrations of team spirit.
- Create a resilient board culture. Benzel recommends one cardinal rule for creating a board culture in which the group can get through a conflict and bounce back: Create a clear, deliberate and transparent process for reaching decisions. The rule may be that deliberations will continue for 30 minutes at each of two meetings, with a decisive vote at the third meeting. It may be that spokespersons on both sides of an issue each get 10 minutes to speak during the deliberations phase. Whatever the details, simply having such a consistent policy makes a big difference. In its absence, the imagination runs wild with other methods: 'I didn't get my way, so maybe I'll throw a tantrum at our public meeting! Maybe I'll sue! Maybe I'll bad-mouth the board to the staff and the press!' Michael Ford recommends making such procedures part of regular board development and strategic planning exercises.
- Tend to relations with the superintendent. It's hard to ferret out cause and effect, but school boards with stubborn interpersonal conflicts spar with their superintendents with disproportionate frequency. The School Superintendents Association (AASA) sees the potential for such tensions with the superintendent on the rise, as the line separating administration from oversight gets increasingly blurred. Pre-emptive measures would include investing extra time in recruiting a superintendent who feels like a good fit with the board, getting relations with a new superintendent on a solid footing in the first year of his tenure and patching up small rifts with the superintendent that have built up over time.
School board conflicts can be addressed by drawing on the experience of other districts. It is even possible to prevent future catastrophes. With a plan in place, a school district can welcome the generative conflicts that spark innovation without fearing the worst.