When I first became a Superintendent, my outgoing counterpart said to me. "Remember, the Board is never wrong. If they make a poor decision it is because you have not done a good enough job of outlining the options and the consequences." That was twenty-five years ago, and it still sticks with me. Superintendents, and their Boards have a mutually dependent and supportive relationship. The active engagement of both sides is critical to the development of the school district. In spite of that, almost any guide to Board governance that you read will include some sort of Venn diagram, or pie chart, or diagonally split grid that purports to illustrate the division of responsibilities between Board and Superintendent. They will traditionally be labelled - Board responsibility, Administration responsibility, and Shared Responsibility with a shopping list of items under each one. But in fact, the number of boards that actually operate according to this diagram could probably be counted on one hand. These charts don't represent how school districts work, nor should they.
A healthy model of governance needs to have both an open and proactive Superintendent and an inquisitive and activist Board. The two solitudes approach of "this is my territory and that's yours" is definitely a recipe for eventual disaster. Now that is not to say that Boards should be involved in the day to day minutiae of operations, but they should be provided with any and all information that they require to effectively exercise their oversight function. I first cut my teeth working with Boards in the public system in Ontario. Long before KPIs became fashionable (or the term had even been coined), those Boards took meticulous efforts to carefully examine each financial decision made, or assess each programme introduced. They questioned staffing decisions (positions, not personnel) and were acutely aware of all aspects of risk management. They were not interested in running operations and making decisions, but they saw their jobs as ensuring that after we administrators had taken some action, spent some money, or created some new position, that we were able to explain the rationale clearly, answer any and all questions, and give detailed reference materials (external research, performance statistics, prevailing trends. etc.) to support our actions. An inability to do so would be a negative assessment of our own leadership and administrative abilities regardless of the inherent value of what had been done.
This is not a case of a Board micromanaging, but rather of it flexing its fiduciary muscles and ensuring the accountability of both the Superintendent to the Board, and the Board to its stakeholders.
Activist Boards are more than just Strategic (although they are that!), they are demanding (within reason) and responsible. Boards that are passive, and that follow a narrowly constructed definition of their own areas of interest eventually create complacency (or even arrogance) in the attitude and approach of even the most dedicated and talented Superintendent, creating a situation which eventually can lead to major misunderstandings and an unpleasant parting of the ways. Not surprisingly, looking back over the history of many struggling school districts, you can usually identify a dysfunctional partnership between Board and Superintendent.
Interestingly perhaps, the Boards that are the most vulnerable to moving from activist to passive are those with excellent Superintendents. The Board gets used to depending on the leadership and management strength of the Superintendent and ceases to pay close attention. If she or he falters, or moves on and is succeeded by someone less capable, the school district is ripe for a major - perhaps fatal - breakdown. The fault for this lies on both sides of the equation, but ultimately, it is the whole school community that pays the price.