Better Orientation for Small School Board Members

board governance small schools Aug 25, 2021
Compass indicating orientation

“I thought it was just me…” I’ve heard this too many times from smart, dedicated, engaged new board members who sit in meetings and feel out of touch, unworthy, unintelligent. They don’t understand what is going on, why decisions are being made, and what their role is. They frequently end up leaving the board because they don’t believe they can make an impact. 


It is not them- it is the board.


How can boards of any size, and especially small school boards that expect so much of their board members, hope to be strategic if their members don’t understand their roles, don’t have the information they need, and haven’t been properly oriented? One of the most critical responsibilities of any board is to enlist the right people and give them the necessary information to accomplish their responsibilities. And yet often, small school boards overlook this important focus.


Before we can expect board members to fully participate in the work of the board, we need to provide them with a significant amount of information about the school and about the board. This takes thought, planning, and time. To best orient new board members, there should be time for learning and discussion rather than just handing over documents. Consider orientation as a year-long activity with periodic check-ins for understanding and continuing discussion. Furthermore, don’t assume that because a new board member is a parent or a member of the faculty or staff that they have this information. Each new board member should be treated similarly and given the same information in the same way. 


Information to share with new board members about the school:

  1. The school’s mission, vision, and values statements with a discussion about how, where, and when they are presented to the community. Discuss how they are “lived” in the community as well.
  2. Current programs- academic, extra-curricular, supplemental, etc. Discuss why and how programmatic decisions (both historic and recent) were made.
  3. Educational philosophy- discuss how it was developed and how it is implemented inside and outside the classroom. 
  4. Current and historic enrollment and retention data. Discuss enrollment and retention goals as well as what recruitment and retention strategies are currently utilized.
  5. Development & advancement activities and goals for each area. Discuss specific activities undertaken by school personnel and where board members are encouraged or expected to participate.
  6. Physical plant. Take new board members on a tour and discuss the status of the building, maintenance schedules, grounds upkeep, etc. 
  7. Financial status and strategic financial plan. Discuss the process for setting the budget (how, who, type of budget, etc.) and any budgetary issues or concerns currently confronting the school. Share the strategic financial plan and how it was developed.


Information to share with new board members about the Board:

  1. The purpose of the board. Discuss how and when the board engages in strategic oversight and how and when board members may be involved in operations. Share the annual calendar of discussion topics. Discuss any upcoming special focus for the board such as accreditation, reviewing the bylaws, etc.
  2. The board’s relationship with the Head. Discuss who makes what kind of decisions.
  3. Board member’s relationships with the rest of the community (parents, faculty & staff, alumni, etc.) in their role as board members. Discuss the limits of their role, confidentiality, that the board speaks with one voice, etc.
  4. Succession planning for both the Head and board leadership. Discuss how decisions are made and how emerging leaders are cultivated.
  5. Fiduciary oversight. Provide an example of a financial report to the board and explain, if necessary, the various components. Ensure there is a basic understanding of the annual budget vs. cash flow vs. the balance sheet. 
  6. Decision-making. Discuss the process for decision-making, how board agenda items are developed, and the role of committees. 


There is a lot to discuss with new board members which is why board orientation should be a year-long endeavor.  Small schools especially need board members to roll up their sleeves and fulfill the many expectations placed on the board. New board members will be better and sooner able to engage and participate if they have comprehensive information, perspective, and context about the school and the roles and responsibilities of the board.

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