We are all aware of the need to design and strengthen buildings to withstand the forces of nature, but how well will your school board/board of education weather events that can rock your governance foundation? I have witnessed boards that have been humming along for years become dysfunctional in the space of months when the winds of change have blown strong. New members, budget cuts, scandal or tragedy can quickly test a board’s resilience to stay focused and functional.
No board is immune to such challenges, but some are more able work through difficult times because they have established the following key governance processes to strengthen their resilience. How does your board stack up?
- Clarity of Purpose: Resilient boards are crystal clear that their primary role is to ensure student achievement. These aren’t just nice words on a mission statement. These boards are continuously laser-focused on student achievement and use it as the main criteria for every decision they make. When challenges arise, this is the rock that anchors their work.
- Clarity of Role: Resilient boards understand the difference between their role versus staff. They have established clear terms of reference to keep themselves in the goal setting, policy making, and oversight aspects of governance. They work hard to stay away from the operational tasks of running the district. They are also clear on the role of individual trustees versus the board as a whole. They understand the nature of the corporate board and function within it.
- A “Living” Strategic Plan: Most boards go through a yearly strategic planning exercise, but unfortunately, for many, that is all it is – an exercise. Resilient boards make sure that their strategic goals stay front and centre throughout the year. They build them into their review systems for themselves and their superintendent by monitoring, evaluating, and when necessary, modifying them. Keeping their eye on the plan reduces their chances of being pulled into the weeds by external forces.
- Board Processes: Resilient boards use proven processes to guide and manage their activities. Agenda development, rules of order, adroit chairing, civilized debate, public input, informed policy-making and evaluation are examples of processes that keep them focussed and functional during tough times.
- A “Living” Code of Conduct: Resilient boards do not leave responsible conduct to chance. They understand that as elected officials they must hold themselves to a high standard of conduct. They establish a code that specifically outlines their expectations for working with each other, staff and the public. They use the code to monitor and assess their conduct throughout the year, and particularly when the going gets tough and emotions can run high.
- Governance Transparency: Resilient boards ensure that as much of their work is done in the public eye. They only hold in-camera meetings when privacy is absolutely necessary. There are no “meetings before the meeting” to avoid challenging discussions or get others onside. They are not afraid to vigorously express their differences in opinion during debate but do so in a professional and responsible way. The more the board’s decision-making is in the public’s view the better the chances that the public will understand and support the board when difficult decisions have to be made.
- Community Engagement: Related to governance transparency, resilient boards find continuous and creative ways to keep the school district in the public eye. The is critical not just because it is the main way that elected representatives understand their constituents, but also because it is the main way the community understands – and can support – the board. When the public loses trust or is indifferent about the board, the board is in trouble.
- Superintendent Relationship: There are no successful boards without successful senior leaders – and vice versa. Resilient boards build a supportive and trusting relationship with their superintendent, but also set high standards and clear expectations for achieving the district’s goals. They monitor the superintendent’s work through a regular performance review process and provide constructive feedback on an ongoing basis. You always need a strong and trusted leadership team, but especially so when the going gets tough.
- Self Review: Resilient boards are aware of their own governance strengths and challenges. They have a formal self-review process and use it to drive continuous improvement.
- Continuous Learning: Resilient boards understand that they must be continuously improving their governance skills. They access their individual and collective needs and seek out learning activities to gain the knowledge and skills they need. They build trustee learning into the budget and hold themselves to the same standards of professional improvement as they do their staff.
Good governance is more complex than a ten point checklist, but boards that have the above processes and structures in place are less likely to have governance problems and will be more able to weather the challenges that will inevitably come along. How resilient is your board?