Boards Behaving Badly

If one were to conduct a nation-wide poll of private school leaders asking them to identify the greatest threat to the health, stability, and future of their schools, undoubtedly there would be a myriad of opinions. Negative influences such as a toxic youth culture, dysfunctional families, unreasonable parent demands, rising tuition rates, a shortage of qualified teachers, and the emergence of charter schools and home-schooling would certainly make the top ten list of concerns for most school administrators. Indeed, these trends and issues have been the subjects of articles published in leading educational journals for years.

Yet, as difficult and perplexing as these challenges are, they are not the greatest menace to our schools. The most serious threat to our schools may be their own governing boards. A lack of knowledge, understanding, and application of sound governing principles, what the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) calls “Principles of Good Practice,” pose the greatest danger to private school health and stability.

When boards behave badly, when they are guilty of unethical practices, when personal agendas emerge, and when shortsighted decision- making is the norm, a trust is broken and the entire school community suffers. It is time for regional accrediting associations and professional membership organizations to do more than publish another article urging school boards to invest in their own development.

Serious threats call for serious measures.

The non-public school board, whether self- perpetuating, elected by parents, appointed by a religious body, or some combination thereof, is a peculiar institution in American society. The qualifications for membership are not always stringent and the process of selection is o en casual. To be elected or appointed to a school board often depends less on merit, more on familiarity or popularity. Few boards take the time and make the effort to really investigate potential members. Fewer boards go to the trouble of profiling their own membership to identify deficiencies, then invite those individuals onto the board whose talents and a liations can best meet the needs of the school.

Most often, nominating committees propose individuals whom they know well and with whom they enjoy a personal or professional relationship. This fraternal approach to board selection usually results in the selection of well-intentioned individuals who may very well support the school and its mission. But, it may also result in the selection of individuals who are ill equipped to function as effective trustees, or who bring counterproductive assumptions about their roles and responsibilities, or, worse yet, who bring their own personal agendas onto the board.

What are the consequences of such a casual, non-strategic approach to board selection? Ask any head of school or chairman of the board who has had to confront a board member for crossing the governance—management boundary. Ask any head of school who has been in the uncomfortable position of considering a “special request” from a trustee who determines his or her future. Ask any of the hundreds of school leaders who have been dismissed without cause because of the political or economic pressure placed on their boards from disgruntled parents, dissatisfied teachers, or disillusioned donors or alumni.

Considering the shortening tenure of private school heads and the fact that the majority of all heads depart their schools having been red or forced to resign, there must be a major flaw in how our schools are governed.

This topic leads to some perplexing questions: How can a school sustain meaningful change when it frequently rotates the very people responsible for implementing that change? How can a school maintain its integrity when board members insert themselves into vital operations without the invitation of management? How can a school remain focused on its mission when decision-making processes have been politicized?

Clearly, the answers to these questions lie within the board itself. Boards must be willing to invest in their own development. Since the majority of board members join a board with little or no experience, it is imperative that they receive the proper orientation and on-going training necessary for them to be effective in their roles as governors and trustees of a school’s mission. Yet, too many boards have given only token attention to this necessity.

So, in the interest of solutions, here’s an idea. Virtually every accredited school requires that its instructional personnel possess the proper credentials (degree, certification, license, etc.) required to do their job. Additionally, almost all schools require teachers and administrators to pursue a professional growth plan that mandates the completion of a certain amount of continuing education in order to retain their credentials. If we expect our professional educators to meet minimum standards, then why not require some standard of training for those individuals who determine the mission, the philosophy, and the policies which define our schools, and who are ultimately accountable for its direction and viability?

If we believe that purposeful selection and on-going development of trustees are the best tools available to produce an effective, stable governing board, there must be a mechanism to ensure that boards take this responsibility seriously. Volunteers must be able to earn the responsibility to govern our schools rather than to assume their right to govern.

The answer is for our accrediting and professional associations to mandate board orientation and training as a prerequisite for accreditation and membership. It will take the authority of such organizations to compel school boards to address this deficiency in their model of governance. Heads of schools, educational consultants, and professional organizations can write articles ad nauseum extolling the virtues of board development. But we all know what happens when our schools offer a parenting workshop; the very parents who would benefit most don’t bother to attend. Similarly, the very school boards that would benefit most from board training do not show up either. Unless it is mandated, many boards will not make the orientation and training of its membership a priority.

This is where accrediting associations can deliver a valuable service to their memberships. Accreditation is a credential that most non-public schools deem essential. Accreditation is designed to affirm that schools are following sound principles of governance and management. It legitimizes a school’s educational program and affirms that a school is fiscally sound and operates under prudent management. Most importantly, the accreditation process requires a school to periodically undergo a critical self-analysis leading to a plan of self-improvement. During the “self-study” phase of accreditation, weaknesses and deficiencies are identified and addressed.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable then, to expect school boards to conduct similar self-assessments? Why not require a candidate school to provide documentation that its governing board is actively engaged in its own development? Schools already provide curriculum guides, standardized test scores, policy handbooks, and many other forms of documentation to peer review teams, so providing evidence of on-going board training and development is not unreasonable. Shouldn’t the one stake- holder group that has the most influence on the success or failure of a school be required to develop and implement sound governing principles in order to receive the endorsement of an accrediting association?

Consider this proposition.
1. Require accredited schools to submit evidence that all new trustees a ended an orientation that includes education in the “Principles of Good Practice for Governing Boards.”

2. Require school boards to adopt a policy that no trustee may be officially seated or vote on any matter until they a end the orientation session.

3. Increase the number and expand the locations of board development workshops offered to member schools.

4. Develop a list of educational consultants and current and retired non-public school administrators who are available to conduct on-site governance workshops to member schools.

5. As a part of the documentation needed for accreditation, require boards to submit a copy of their official minutes that contain the date(s) on which board development was conducted and the names of the trustees who a ended the training session.

6. Establish a special accreditation status or endorsement that recognizes schools for following sound governing principles.

7. Sanction schools which fail to take seriously their responsibility to follow sound principles and which refuse to invest in their own board development by withholding accreditation or placing the school on probationary status.

8. Establish a grievance procedure by which school personnel, board members, or parents can request a review of suspected board misconduct.

Accrediting associations and professional membership organizations serve a public good. They provide parents, teachers, and administrators with a critical piece of information needed in the school selection process. By and large, the public trusts the accreditation credential. Shouldn’t there be some assurance that accredited schools are not only well managed, but also well governed? I challenge our accrediting associations and professional membership organizations to seriously consider this proposal. In the end, stronger schools make for stronger associations. And stronger schools will be around to fulfill their missions for years to come.