The old saying, “Too soon old. Too late smart”, is as applicable to boards as it is to life in general. We get busy. We focus on the multitude of tasks and responsibilities that life throws at us. The days go by with little time to check on how we are doing, to learn and to improve. Too soon old. Too late smart.
Most boards have processes in place to provide ongoing monitoring of student achievement and district budgets. Unfortunately, this is not often done for the board’s own governance practices. While most boards are quite accepting of the need for regular performance reviews for their superintendent but they are less inclined to do so for themselves, preferring to leave this up to the voters at the next election – the ultimate performance review. The problem is this doesn’t promote ongoing governance improvement. The answer is board self-review.
Self-review is a process where the board, often with the help of a facilitator, looks under the hood at its own governance practices to determine what is working well, what is not, and what changes need to be made. It is a process that increases accountability back to the community, demonstrates leadership, and instills a sense of continuous quality improvement, not just for the board but the entire district. It is the board saying, “If we expect others to assess their performance for improvement, then why not us?”
As stated above, the primary focus of board self-review is not to review district-wide student achievement or finances, but how the board goes about its governance business. Do we have effective processes in place to ensure we have sufficient information on which to make decisions? How well do our meetings run? How is our committee structure working? Are we living our own code of conduct? Are we getting along? How is our relationship with senior staff? Are we clear on our roles and goals? Are we adequately engaging with our community? How well do we communicate with each other, with staff, with our community? What do others think about our work? And most importantly – how can we do better?
These are critically important questions for all boards and there are a number of ways the answers can be determined. The process can range from a formal assessment using surveys and interviews to a less structured, facilitated dialogue among trustees. There are numerous tools and processes available for board self-review, but I highly recommend that a board make use of the services of its own provincial association or a skilled external facilitator who can guide the process. It does not need to be costly or time-consuming. It does need to be safe and confidential (although the board should consider some level of reporting out to its constituents to demonstrate how seriously it takes its governance responsibilities). Asking yourself and others how you are doing can be a challenging experience. There is no point doing a self-review if it is a superficial pat on the back exercise. On the other hand, it needs to be carefully managed so that it doesn’t leave identified issues without a path to resolution.
In a future posting, I will discuss the topic of superintendent performance review but will say here that the two processes are (or should be) intricately connected. The success of any school district is highly dependent on the quality of the superintendent’s leadership – and the superintendent’s success is the board’s responsibility. How well the board is working with and supporting the superintendent must be part of the board’s own review.
The main theme of this series has been on intra-board relations, but the underlying premise is that good governance is a skill set that must be learned, nurtured and assessed. Although an essential component to good governance, it is not enough just to care. One must be willing to learn and be committed to improving. Board self-review is the path to both.