During my 30 years as an educational administrator and, most recently my 15 years as head of Denver Jewish Day School, I have come to appreciate the board and the lasting impact that an outstanding board can have on a school. Certainly, a school would never enjoy success without a dedicated faculty, a community that supports its mission, and donors who help make up the difference between tuition and the cost to operate the institution. I believe that an engaged, committed and reflective board is also critical to the long-term success of an independent school.
#1 The key to success starts with the Committee on Trustees (COT).
The key to success starts with The Committee on Trustees, the subcommittee of the board that nominates board members in my school. The makeup of that committee is highly strategic. Our COT functions best as a small group that includes the current board chair, immediate past board chair, a committee chair who is well connected in the community, and an additional board member who is also well connected in the community. The head of school and director of development should also serve on the COT. One must be invited to serve, as it is not a committee you can join voluntarily.
The COT begins its work many months before the slate of nominated board members is made public. This allows enough time to make thoughtful and strategic nominations for board membership. The COT should work to balance board membership 50/50 between current parents and community members, noting that former parents and alumni often can be excellent community board members. The COT should also look to balance the board out with people who have expertise or skills in different areas including finance, legal, fundraising, buildings and grounds and a connection to the mission of the school. Nominees should be someone whom the COT could someday see becoming the board chair or president. That helps keep succession planning front and center.
#2 A board also needs members who can support the school financially, and some who will make leadership level gifts to major fundraising campaigns.
The COT needs to speak transparently with prospective board members about the expectation that all board members support the school’s campaigns at a level that is meaningful and appropriate for them. There is not an expectation that all board members will make major gifts. However, it is important for some board members to be amongst the strongest financial supporters of the school. In our case, 100% of our board supports the school financially, and one-third of our board are major donors. Having your most dedicated leaders step up and give leadership gifts to both the annual campaign and capital campaign helps put the school in the strongest possible position for success, as board members asking for gifts have already stepped up and demonstrated their belief in the school.
#3 Board member training and ongoing education.
Once the COT has nominated new board members and those members have been elected to the board, it is time to begin training them. I have found that it is best for new board members to be contacted directly by the board chair and/or the head of school to talk one-on-one about their new role and answer any questions or concerns they might have. A board orientation session held with each new board member is also very productive in preparing board members for their first meeting. A board training, which typically includes board leadership and school administration, should cover expectations and the different roles and responsibilities of the head of school and school staff (operations) and board members (fiduciary). There is sometimes some overlap or gray area between the responsibilities of the head and the board, and the subtleties of these issues can be discussed so that board members begin to get a sense of these items before they come up for the first time.
Board education continues during the school year as well. There are often opportunities for training at board meetings, and an annual retreat is a useful opportunity to strengthen a board. To me, a retreat is simply a gathering of the board that is substantially longer than a typical board meeting. A retreat could last three hours or three days, depending on the goals for the meeting. I prefer to get a few months into a new school year and begin working with a new board before selecting topics for a retreat. That way you have a sense of what the issues or challenges are, and an agenda can be set for the retreat that will be most productive and useful for the board.
#4 A well-run board meeting goes a long way.
This is an important element I have grown to appreciate over the years. The board chairs with whom I have worked have been dedicated to setting a meaningful agenda and sticking to it. Side discussions are not permitted, comments that are off track are redirected, and a polite dialogue steeped in our school’s values is expected. Respectful disagreement over issues is permitted in the boardroom, but upon conclusion of the meeting, the entire board is expected to support publicly what has been decided.
#5 The board chair-head relationship is a key partnership and must function well.
I recommend that the board chair and head have a scheduled weekly meeting where current, strategic and long-term issues can be discussed. My current board chair and I also developed a list of promises we made to each other about the way that we will work together. This covenant is at the top of our weekly meeting agenda, so it is always front and center. Most importantly, work to keep an open, transparent, and friendly dialogue between the chair and head. Settle differences before meetings, be transparent and upfront about feelings, and try to prevent surprises.
The board chair and/or head must also be prepared to have difficult conversations with board members when necessary. Conversations must be held with board members who dominate meetings, push a personal agenda, have poor attendance or are not in line with the mission or strategic plan of the school. These conversations are ones that many prefer to avoid, but they are crucial to have if you want a highly functioning board.
These steps are not exhaustive, nor do they guarantee that your school’s board will always make the right decisions. However, when implemented with care and dedication, they can help cultivate and sustain a high-functioning, independent school board.