The Hardest Job in School: The Board Member (Part 2)

Surveying a private school with plenty of money, strong enrollment, a winning football team, and selective college admissions during an accreditation visit, a colleague said to me, “Everything’s great when everything’s great.” What he meant, of course, is that over time, even model schools encounter difficulty. It might be a sudden financial downturn, an employee scandal, student misconduct, or vitriolic parents. Trouble comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and schools rely on their boards to minimize risk and to respond effectively to difficulties as they arise.

School boards can’t control the economy, make people be reasonable, or ensure that students follow the rules. They do, however, exercise significant influence on a school’s culture, the security of its employees, and the organization’s mission focus.

In the last post on this topic—why being a school board member is the toughest job in school—I mentioned two significant factors. First, school boards that rely on current parents as members are largely populated with people who are serving for the first time, or who have only ever served on one board. Second, most—and I mean MOST—schools make too little of an investment in professional development for their boards.

Individual vs. Collective Accomplishment

Another common factor has to do with the type of people who tend to be recruited to boards. Often, they are distinguished professionals or business owners with a track record for individual accomplishment. In many instances, however, business owners and well-compensated professionals have established their reputations on the basis of what they achieve, more or less, by themselves. And they are often people who are accustomed to getting things done through those they work with or who work for them, rather than with them. Learning to lead as a collective group of peers, rather than as individuals, requires an adjustment to board members’ expectations for what they should contribute.

Misunderstanding what it means to lead collectively can cause all sorts of headaches. Individually oriented board members are more likely to see themselves as problem solvers in the school community, involving themselves in situations that they’ll probably make worse. They can be inclined to object publicly to board or administrative decisions with which they disagree or to voice their opinions about pending controversies. They can position themselves as the head of school’s direct supervisor, ignoring that the head works at the pleasure of an entire board, not just one member.

Building a disciplined culture of collective leadership helps to ensure that boards remain focused on areas of activity toward which they are best positioned to lead. Talented, capable individuals are necessary. As board members, they serve best in the context of the whole.

Success Indicators

A common effective teaching technique is to write your exam before you write your syllabus and plan your classes. Knowing what you intend for your students to know and how they’ll demonstrate their knowledge clarifies how you’ll spend your time, and theirs, from start to finish. The same is true of a strong board. Beyond the meetings and the routine decisions, what circumstances will reveal whether the board is doing its job well?

Too often, board success has a tendency to be defined more by mechanics than outcomes. Attendance at board meetings, command of budget details, attention to complaints, and tests of the administration’s performance—as important as these are—can displace broader, more telling aspects of the school’s health.

How boards and heads work together is best defined by desired outcomes, not just by what the accreditation standards dictate. Keeping a close eye on the by products of the work and the larger effects on the school community is ultimately more informative than maintaining scorecards of who did or didn’t meticulously stick to their job description.

Knowledge of the Institution

Finally, though in no way comprehensively, boards and their members can find themselves at a disadvantage by believing that they know more about their school than they actually do.

Now this can be a little touchy, but even highly engaged board members with a long history in a school, with enrolled students and active spouses, have a limited understanding of how the school works, both day to day and over time. It is easy to over assess one’s grasp of the causes that lead to observable effects, either positive or negative. We see this in a wide variety of situations, but none so clearly as in the process of conducting financial analyses and constructing models for sustainability.

A common example is board members’ ideas about enrollment trends. If a school is growing and stable, the assumption tends to be that the school’s tuition and other revenue streams are optimally situated. When schools experience stagnancy or enrollment declines, fingers instinctively point to the culprits of price increases (which are inevitable) or some unanticipated shift in the market (slow wage growth, consumer confidence, etc.). In fact, except in relatively rare circumstances, reliable research shows that the most significant impact on enrollment stems from a school’s programmatic execution: its primary value proposition. Internal, rather than external, factors play an outsized role in overall stability.

Generally speaking, a board member’s insight into the school’s reality constitutes a sliver of the total experience. As much as anything, recognizing this individual handicap commends more collaboration, information gathering, and exposure to the wider context of private schools in the 21st century.

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