Recognize the Power Bases at Your School

Vol. 16 No. 1

trustees eletter vol16 no1 powerbase

The people who contribute the most to the smoothness with which any organization functions are those to whom others turn for leadership and advice. By dint of their experience, talent, support, aggressiveness, or thoughtfulness, they inevitably develop a power base that impacts a school’s operation.

There are often many power bases at a school, falling into three categories:

  • Designated: These people are systematically elected or appointed. The structure under which they function is relatively formalized and their responsibilities and authority have been officially designated.
  • Ad hoc: These groups develop as needs dictate, involving individuals undertaking specific projects or addressing major issues.
  • Floating: These power bases have no direct ties or responsibilities to the formal organization, including those given “power by anointment,” granted by one or more people who hold the formal positions of authority.

The school’s Board and administration must be alert and sensitive to all three. Ideally, all three function harmoniously. Problems arise when any one of the three gets out of balance. But be most vigilant about the third power base category, and recognize such groups’ existence, limit their number, and proceed with caution. Consider the following strategies as you evaluate the status of the current power bases in your school and determine what action to take.

  • Hold the line—prevent the amoeba-like growth of more power bases. Do not legitimize a power base if you feel its existence is not in the best long-term interest of the school.
  • Do not allow spouses to carve out power bases that are not favorable to the school. Spouses can be a great asset in any number of ways, but the potential for inappropriate activity must be averted.
  • Don’t use your faculty “sounding boards” in such a way that you risk being perceived as “two-faced” by their peers.
  • Carefully delineate parameters and monitor the activities of your parent association and athletic booster club, particularly around fundraising. Any fundraising that is undertaken by these groups must be appropriate, beneficial to the whole school, and must not compete with or undercut the formally programmed efforts of the Development Office.
  • Take every precaution to defuse the creation or impact of a “parking-lot mafia.” There is no other floating power base more fraught with insidious potential than this one. One or two aggressive parents may convene this group, and misinformation and gossip can result. Try to identify these individuals and, if possible, divert their energies into more productive school projects. Don’t ignore these situations hoping they will go away. They won’t without some clever intervention.
  • Instead of appointing one or two teachers as representatives to the Board, have the Board invite different teachers, two or three at a time, to each meeting. This way, no one on the faculty assumes the power base and, after time, the entire faculty will have had a chance to see and appreciate your Board at work.

All three types of power bases can be assets to your school, with a formal structure that incorporates the most able and willing leaders supported by an understructure and sub–rosa network of quiet leadership.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Trustees Vol. 15 No. 5 Foster Board Objectivity—Avoid Subjectivity
The Source for Trustees Vol. 13 No. 2 School Administrators at Board Meetings: Who, When, and Why
The Source for School Heads Vol. 14 No. 3 Pick-Up Lane Gossip: The Private School’s Water Cooler

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 42 No. 7 The Toxic Teacher: Identification
I&P Vol. 36 No. 4 The Hazards of ‘Representatives’ at Board

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