Wearing Two Hats I: Parents as Board Members

Audrey Goldfarb

Cons: Parent trustees’ role is a tough one, often fraught with competing personal relationships and potential conflicts of interest. As parents the trustees might be inwardly focused on their children’s particular needs, their family’s particular needs or the particular needs of their family friends. As trustees they need to be able to “stand on the balcony” and look at the school as a whole. They need to be ever vigilant to assure that their decisions are focused on the welfare of the school as a whole, not on the welfare of their own children.

How many parents should be on the board?

The National Association of Independent Schools suggests that the ideal board size is 15-21: small enough to act decisively as a team, but large enough to cover the strategic needs of the school. It further suggests that current parents should represent no more than 60 percent of board membership. It is important to balance current parents with non-parents to ensure objectivity and the long view. Alumni, past parents, grandparents, and community opinion leaders should be considered as non-parent board members. It is also recommended that the parent association liaison be selected by the board, not elected by the parent body to ensure that the liaison meet the same criteria for board selection as any other board member.

Can current parents be effective board members?

Some of the most capable and effective Jewish day school board leaders with whom I have had the privilege to work were and are current parents in their schools. Their role as a parent is not the sole reason for board nomination. In addition to being parents, their names are placed under consideration for board membership because they are recognized as possessing skills and talents that are viewed as “useful” and needed for the current board vision and action plan. Their names are suggested because they are known and well respected by the school and within the wider community. They are considered in the hopes that they will be valuable additions to the current board.

NAIS’s popular Trustee Handbook notes that “it is not easy to diversify a board, but the effort to do so will pay great dividends in providing a multiple of perspectives, and lead to more effective decisions in the long run.”

How can we orient, support and evaluate parents who are “wearing two hats” to understand and fulfill their dual roles?

All new board members should participate in an orientation that clearly articulates the school’s mission and vision and facilitates an understanding of the trustee’s role and responsibilities. An orientation enhances the effectiveness of any board trustee. The responsibilities listed below are especially important to address with parents:

  • Board members are responsible for looking at the needs of the school as a whole.
  • Board members take on the obligation of confidentiality. They will have access to information that is not open to the general community.
  • Board members will be asked to take on responsibilities that will facilitate the board’s annual plan.
  • Board members need to partner with the head of school.
  • Whatever disagreements may occur behind closed doors, board members must demonstrate unity to all outside and within the school.

Pairing a new board member with an experienced board member as a mentor can be a mutually supportive process. The mentor makes him/herself available to welcome the new board member, attend meetings together, answer questions, and discuss issues. If the new board member is a parent it may be wise to assign an experienced board member who is also a parent.

Each new board member should be invited to become an active member on a committee that fulfills her interests and would benefit from her skills and talents. Involving and empowering new members in an area of need and interest is an important tool to build effective board members.

Establishing a process of on-going reflection and evaluation regarding realization of annual goals as well as personal accomplishments facilitates healthy communication and support, and can be powerful in shaping an effective board leader. The committee of trustees, executive committee, and board chair should facilitate this process throughout the year.

In summary, I believe that parents should be considered as potential board members. It is important to nominate parents who have talents and skills that will be assets to the board’s work. It is also vital that all board members, including parents, receive orientation and ongoing support and engage in frequent reflection and evaluation. Throughout the day school world many parents have worn “two hats” and have been successfully providing effective day school board leadership. ♦

Currently a Coach-Mentor for PEJE, Audrey Goldfarb has been a classroom teacher, a special education teacher and administrator in both public and private education over the past 35 years. She can be reached at goldf003@umn.edu.

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HaYidion Parents Autumn 2009
Fall 2009