What Leads to Conflict on School Boards?

Conflict can serve both negative and positive functions on public and nonprofit governing boards.   Too little conflict can lead to good ideas being left off the table, the rubber-stamping of executive positions, or the dreaded state of groupthink. Too much conflict on a governing board can grind progress to a halt, lead to entrenched coalitions, and broadly have a negative impact on organizational outcomes.

In a new paper, Doug Ihrke and I take a look at the determinants of conflict on Wisconsin school boards. (If interested, you can read the abstract here). The paper builds on theories of small group dynamics that, in general, have shown a negative relationship between conflict and governing performance on public and nonprofit boards. One of the reasons we wanted to look at this topic is the oft-repeated assumption that school boards are politicized to the point of negatively impacting student performance. My suspicion, which proved correct, is that there is actually large variation in the level of conflict on Wisconsin school boards. Boards are complex animals, it is impossible to understand their impacts based on a few anecdotes.

So, Doug and I surveyed the universe of Wisconsin school board members, and tested several hypotheses related to the causes of negative conflict on school boards. We operationalized conflict with an index variable consisting of respondent agreement to four statements:

  • Conflict among some school board members is high.
  • Disagreements between board members often become personalized.
  • During board negotiations prior conflicts often 
  • School board coalitions (two or more individual members 
joining forces) tend to form
along predictable lines (e.g. political party, male/female, etc.)

Below are our hypotheses, and findings:

Hypothesis 1: School boards overseeing lower performing school systems are more prone to conflict.

We found no evidence to support this. After controlling for student, district, and board member demographics (which we did in all models), there was no link between a district’s report card score and board conflict.

Hypothesis 2: Stability as indicated by low levels of board turnover lowers perceived levels of conflict.

We suspected boards that were stable, as indicated by having very little turnover in the previous five years, would have lower levels of board conflict. We were wrong. We found no relationship.

Hypothesis 3: Positive board member–superintendent relations are an indicator of low conflict.

Here we were correct. Board members who viewed their superintendent as a governing partner have significantly lower levels of board conflict.

Hypothesis 4: Ideological diversity increases levels of conflict.

If school boards are overly politicized, one would expect ideologically diverse boards to have higher levels of conflict. We found no evidence of this; shared political beliefs did not lower conflict.

Hypothesis 5: Boards overseeing more challenging student populations exhibit higher levels of perceived conflict.

We found that board members overseeing districts with higher percentages of minority pupils had significantly higher levels of conflict.

The brief takeaway from this study is that conflict on Wisconsin school boards is a function of the students served by the district, and the relationship between the board and the superintendent. We also note that older board members tend to serve on higher conflict boards, while more experienced board members serve on lower-conflict boards. Obviously boards cannot control the age o their members or the students they serve, so our overall conclusion is:

“In general, we find that the best course of action for Wisconsin school boards looking to lower levels of board conflict is to make efforts to improve board-superintendent relations.”

This study focuses on broad conflict, however we are currently working to determine what leads to priority conflict on boards. We asked board members across the country to rank their top ten priorities for their districts, then we measured the variation in answers for board members serving together. The results, thus far, are interesting…so stay tuned.


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