Does your school community know the purpose of your board?Aug 11, 2021
I was talking with a board chair of a small school recently about the constant need to train board members about the focus and purpose of independent school governance. She was lamenting the lack of deep understanding of governance within her trustees and wondering how to build a body of knowledge within her board. As we were discussing strategies, we touched on the fact that actually, very few people in her school community fully understand the purpose of the board. This became very clear when the board needed to make some difficult decisions at the beginning of the pandemic. Members of the parent community challenged the board decisions (in ways that were both helpful and not so helpful) because they were confused about the authority and responsibility the board has for the school. Having to deal with an uninformed community hindered the board’s work. How can we ensure that our school communities understand the role of the board in ways that will be beneficial?
Independent school board work has aspects that are highly confidential. In an attempt not to disclose private or sensitive information, there is a tendency for board members to keep everything about their work quiet. So there is a mystique, an opaqueness surrounding governance. Yet, maintaining the mystique doesn’t serve schools well. We need informed communities that understand the role of governance in order to both support the board and appropriately hold them accountable. When everyone understands how a board works, effective governance can be fully realized. Furthermore, as many small schools recruit for their board from the parent community, having informed constituents helps in maintaining a knowledgeable board.
Schools need to balance confidentiality and transparency regarding board work. Of course, much of their work is sensitive and confidential and must be kept private. Yet there is much that can be shared with the wider community beyond merely who is serving on the board. Community members should be aware of (among other things) the issues and areas of focus that the board will be considering in the upcoming school year, how board members are identified and recruited, how the board interfaces and collaborates with the head, and the board committees and their charges. These are all aspects of board work that can be shared without breaking confidentiality. Some schools share these types of information by sharing carefully-worded meeting minutes. Others include a board section in their regular school newsletter. And some have a dedicated board page on their website.
Being visible in school activities is another way that boards can be more transparent within a school community. Board members who show up and actively participate in various aspects of the life of the school offer opportunities to discuss the public aspects of their work. Board members should clearly identify themselves and be ready to appropriately converse about what they do and how they serve the school in these informal settings. This will allow others to develop an understanding of the work of the board. Seeing board members at community events also provides a powerful visual statement regarding the board’s commitment to and support of the school.
When boards are invisible to their school community and govern behind closed doors, they promote a lack of understanding and potentially a misunderstanding about their role. This can be undermining when the board needs to make difficult decisions. It also overlooks the opportunity to groom future board members who may be community members. When boards are transparent about their governance work and its significance and importance to the success of the school, while maintaining appropriate confidentiality, they create an informed school community that is able to support the board and hold them accountable.
Brooke Carroll, Ph.D. is a consultant and coach with Acies Strategies, serving small independent school leaders and governors. She offers the Strategic Small School Governance online course for board members and is the author of the forthcoming book: Governing the Small School: Strategies for Boards.
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