When I was conducting a national study of community college presidents and their experiences with a "rogue trustee, " I had a half dozen respondents say to me, "If you think my situation with my board is bad, you should see what is going on in our local school board."
From that study, I have adapted the definition from my recent book for K-12 school boards: Rogue school board members in the K-12 sector run roughshod over the norms and standards of behavior expected of public officials appointed or elected to office. They tend to trample on the ideas and cautions of the superintendent, the board chair, and other board members. They place their own interests over the interests of the district. They violate written and unwritten codes of conduct. They often make inappropriate alliances with faculty and staff members and other board members. They recommend and support policies that are not in the best interests of the school. They consume an inordinate amount of staff and meeting time. They know how to get attention, to appeal to the base elements in others, and to manipulate individuals and situations to their advantage (O'Banion, 2009).
Most rogue board members are quite bright and articulate; some are mentally unbalanced. They are sometimes loners, exiled from the herd, but they also create alliances with others to carry out their agenda. They are high maintenance. They tend to poison the culture of the school instead of helping to create a sense of community, collaboration, innovation, and common values. They become the catalyst for increased defensiveness, paranoia, subterfuge, and fear. In short, they cause enormous damage. The rogue board member is the elephant in the room, creating an ever-widening circle of frustration and destruction for anything in its path.
Does this sound like any school board member you have ever known? What can you and other board members do to corral the rogue board member?
Strategies That Work
The strategies that presidents of community colleges suggested for dealing with a rogue member of the board are applicable to K-12 school boards. The strategies range from the obvious, such as using sound policies and procedures, to more hardball strategies, such as using political pressure and supporting public censure. Not all strategies work, of course; leaders must select the strategies that are appropriate for their situation and their district culture.
The strategies below are relevant for the K-12 sector. Principals, superintendents, and board members have used them, sometimes alone and sometimes in combination, to lessen the influence of or remove a rogue school board member:
- Create a code of ethics with teeth--include a procedure for removing a board member.
- Establish policies and guidelines for board behavior that include such items as board attendance, time limits on speaking, requests for staff reports, and so on.
- Require a thorough orientation for all new board members.
- Establish a board development program that includes work sessions, retreats, and conferences.
- Bring in external consultants and accreditation teams when necessary.
- Use the school's legal counsel to provide an annual update on laws concerning open meetings, bid and contract procedures, conflicts of interest, and the like.
- Create criteria for the board chair position and establish a board policy that allows for the re-election of the board chair.
- Create an annual evaluation process for board chair performance, board member performance, and principal and superintendent performance related to the board. Examine the results in an annual retreat or special work session.
- Establish polices and procedures for a consent agenda for much of the board's work.
- Work with the board chair to address the problems of the rogue board member.
- Work with the board chair to enlist the support of the other members of the board in addressing the problems of the rogue board member.
- Consider channeling the energies and time of the rogue board member into special projects or committees that reflect his or her interest.
- The principal and superintendent should treat all board members equally and should keep all members of the board informed about transactions and meetings with any individual board member.
- Make sure that all transactions with the rogue board member are kept in the public eye.
- Document all violations of the rogue board member.
- Encourage the board chair and other board members to apply political pressure to corral the behavior of the rogue board member.
- Cautiously support opposition candidates when the rogue is running for re-appointment or re-election.
- Encourage the local media to attend board meetings and to examine the actions of the rogue board member.
- Support efforts at public censure by the other board members, the faculty, and the community.
- Keep the board focused on the larger picture: the district's educational mission and student learning.
Protect the School and District
Although the principal or superintendent is the most visible and easiest target for the mischief of a rogue board member, it is the school or district that is most vulnerable to lasting damage. Individuals can move on. Harassed principals and superintendents can resign and move to another school--as can administrators and faculty members and support staff leaders. Stressed board chairs and other board members can resign or decide not to run for reelection or for reappointment.
The school, however, cannot leave town. It is rooted in its community, vulnerable to the best and the worst its community has to offer. In the great majority of cases, the school is a great asset to the community, and community leaders and students point to it with considerable pride. In too many cases, however, schools have lost their spirit and their footing and have become targets of ridicule and embarrassment because of board members run amok. In those schools, rogue board members have intimidated their fellow board members as well as school administrators and faculty members, leaving the school to face a loss of confidence and reputation that can linger for many years.
The damage is often insidious, and it generates responses that are very different from other crises. In the face of natural disasters, a random evil act, or a major financial catastrophe at the school, the human spirit would be evident on many fronts. Energy and compassion would pour out in great abundance. Rallies would be held; funds would be collected; plans and projects would be implemented.
This spirit of response is reflected in some schools savaged by a rogue board member. Strong leadership, teamwork, political savvy, sunshine laws, and peer pressure have all been used to isolate and rout a rogue board member from causing further damage. But that response is not universal. Too many schools have been severely damaged by a rogue board member or by two or more rogue board members acting as a team. Too many schools are currently trying to operate with a board member as the elephant in the room. Those schools and their leaders who still persist need help.
Rally principals and superintendents, faculty and staff members, other board members, and community leaders to stand together in such situations so that schools can be protected from the devastating effects of a rogue board member.
- O'Banion, T. (2009). The rogue trustee: The elephant in the room. Phoenix, AZ: The League for Innovation in the Community College.
Terry O'Banion (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College and director of the community college leadership program at Walden University. He has consulted in more than 800 community colleges and universities.