Legal Audit: An Exercise That Does a School Good

About 14 months ago, a good friend and fellow Christian school leader posed a great question: “How’d you like to join a few other schools in California who are doing a legal audit of their school documents?” “Legal audit” was a new concept to me. At that point, I was finishing up a Head of School (HOS) position in the Silicon Valley and was heading to Southern California to take the same position at a long-standing Christian school that is celebrating 75 years this coming school year. I would be the 5th HOS in four years, following three interim leaders. Selfishly I thought, “What a great way to force me to dig in and get to know the school from the historical inside out.”

After discussions with the Board of Trustees, we were in, along with eight other schools from across the state, schools ranging in size and scope, but foundationally the same, Christ-centered. We all also knew that this type of review was long overdue–that the old days of handshakes and verbal agreements were over. A year later, we would all agree that in the beginning, we had no idea what we were getting into, but in the end, we all got more than we expected.

First, the format. Once our cohort was formed, we agreed to monthly digital ZOOM meetings led by Eric Kniffen, the attorney at the helm of our audit. Of the nine schools involved, four of us would undergo a deeper dive, so when it came to cost sharing, we took a greater financial responsibility. Documents were shared with Eric, and the conversations began. Twice during the year we met face to face: once as a whole group in Northern California and then later, we split into smaller groups. At the spring meeting, much of the audit work had been done, so very specific findings were shared. School board members and other administrators were invited to these face-to-face meetings.

At year’s end, we had a 171-page memo that provided global guidelines and recommendations, as well as commendations and recommendations for individual schools. These comments broke down into five main areas: student issues, employee issues, public accommodations, non-discrimination policies, and corporate documents.

I learned that not one school has it all together! There is great comfort in this shared vulnerability, and it opened up deep, authentic conversation and questioning by which we all grew. Collective wisdom is rich! In our collaboration, we encouraged, pushed, prodded, and learned. We were real with each other, and we created a network build on collective leadership.

Action comes next. With a 171-page final report, just imagine the list of actionable advice we received. The review helped me create a prioritized list, but some immediate action items include the following: clarifying expectations in job descriptions, creating evaluations that align with those descriptions, updating handbooks, and clarifying ministerial exemptions. We also recognized that as a school begun in 1945, laws of incorporation have changed with the times. The memo revealed a need to address even our founding documents.

Overall, the report’s thread boiled down to two main words: focus and consistency. As school leaders starting at a new school, there are assumptions that we make, and the tyranny of the immediate takes priority. We are trying to remember names, not dig into handbooks and articles of incorporation in the first month. But this audit process highlighted important tasks that needed my attention.

I aired some of our “dirty laundry” recently at the ENGAGE: Law, Policy and Christian Education gathering in Washington, D.C. Feedback after our presentation was consistently positive. Looking forward, I hope that you will take that hard, first step by agreeing to participate in this exercise. It is a terrific way to set up our schools’ future for sustainability through focusing and articulating who we are and what we stand for at the deepest levels. Through this legal audit, we leaders experienced the profound impact of schools coming together for the benefit of all. The mission of the Christian school movement is worth protecting; our schools will flourish as we share resources that connect us in our professional work.

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