One of the more frequent causes of boardroom trouble is a lack of clarity on the difference in the roles of the board, the chairperson, senior staff, and individual trustees. Each of these entities has a specific set of responsibilities, defined by the School Act and other legislation, the board’s own bylaws and policies, and the superintendent’s contract. These tend to be high-level role descriptions leaving lots of room for variation and interpretation. This places a high level of responsibility on boards to ensure that governance roles and responsibilities are properly defined, clearly communicated, and visible in practice. When this is not the case lines become blurred and problems emerge.
A challenging for some trustees is understanding and accepting the concept of the corporate board. Simply put, this means that the board as a whole is considered to be a single legal entity. Although it is made up of individual trustees who bring their perspectives to the decision-making process, once a decision is made by majority vote it is the decision of the whole board, not just those members who voted in favour. Those who did not vote in favour are expected to respect the decision and not undermine its implementation. It is sometimes a hard lesson for trustees who campaigned on promises to bring about certain changes to find out that as individuals they have no authority to make changes unless the majority of the board agrees, and no authority to frustrate the progress of decisions once they are made. Boards do not work under the parliamentary model of the provincial and federal governments where there is an opposition party. A related point is that once elected, trustees do not just represent the interests of any special interest group that may have supported them during the campaign, whether it be a specific parent group or union. As stated in an earlier post, once elected they represent the whole community – those who voted for them, those who did not, and those who didn’t vote at all.
The limited authority of the individual trustee extends outside of the boardroom as well. Election to the board does not give an individual trustee any authority to act as or direct staff. The general public and even some staff members do not understand this either. A parent may call an individual trustee at home to ask them to step in and solve some issue with their child at the school or classroom level, but the trustee has no authority to do so. It’s tempting but it is a recipe for trouble on many levels. Boards need to have clear expectations and early training for members to clarify these roles and to provide guidance in how to appropriately respond to requests for intervention from parents, staff and the public.
Another frequent area of role confusion is between the board and senior staff. On the surface, it seems relatively straight forward. The board sets the educational direction for the district, develops policies that establish parameters within which the goals are to be achieved, and monitors progress towards those goals. Senior staff, under the direction of the Superintendent/CEO, plan and implement activities to achieve the board’s goals, and to provide accurate information to help the board assess progress. This is a simplification of the respective roles, but as the oft-cited analogy says, the board determines where the train should go and staff run the trains. The trouble starts when trustees start playing with the trains. Avoiding this can be hard to do. Sometimes it is a matter of necessity. Some districts, particularly small ones, may not have the senior staff resources to manage all of the operational aspects of running the district. In these cases, trustees may need to be more involved in operational level committee work. More frequently, though, boards can become too hands on because they like it. Operational decision-making is more tangible than policy work. You are defining and solving real day-to-day issues. It makes you feel like you have achieved something and you can more immediately see the results of your efforts. Sometimes this involvement in operational decision-making happens intentionally, but more often it is a slow creep. A quick review of board agendas can give you a sense of how much time the board is spending on matters outside of its policy setting and monitoring role. When there is a lack of clarity between the board and senior staff frustration and distrust can grow on both sides. I know of no successful board that does not have a good working relationship with its superintendent. Superintendents, however, are loath to raise these concerns with their boards, their employer. Sorting these roles out is difficult because they are not always black and white, but it is a key component during board/superintendent orientation and review processes.
In part four of this series, I touched on the critical role of the Board Chair in managing meeting processes and behaviour. The Chair not only runs board meetings but usually represents the board as a whole when communicating with media and the superintendent. Once again, it is important for boards to have processes in place so that all members are clear on who speaks for the board, which is almost always the Chair. This puts significant pressure on the Chair to ensure that when she does speak to the media or provides direction to the superintendent she is doing so based on board policies, previous decisions, and her best knowledge of the board’s perspectives. She is not expressing her own opinions or making independent decisions outside of those parameters because, like other trustees, as an individual, she has no authority except that which is given her by the board. Being clear on and executing the role of the Chair is a challenging exercise in leadership.
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of role clarity in building effective boards. When trustees, staff, parents and the general public have a clear understanding of both the authority and the limitations of the board there is a much greater chance that the board will fulfil its role in a productive and respectful manner.