Board Structure: The Plight of the International School

The Governance Game – Part IV: Board Subcommittees – Their Role In Supporting The Mission and Stability of the School
August 1, 2015
Evaluation Of Boards: Self-Reflection In A Healthy School
August 1, 2015
Show all

Board Structure: The Plight of the International School

There are many board structures among the 1500 international schools where English is the main or one of the primary languages of instruction around the world. Some of these structures are healthier than others. Some work well because of good people and despite the dangers inherent in the structure. Some sound structures fail because poorly trained board members are unsure of how to govern within the structure.

All boards should review their by-laws and articles of corporations to ensure that the current structure, set up at a different time, is in fact a healthy structure to serve the school needs in the future.

International Schools have a serious long term issue relating to stability and structure. There are three types of boards present in these institutions:

  1. SELF-PERPETUATING, where the current board is to act as “wise” individuals and choose new trustees to fulfill the school’s mission. The “committee on trustees” is the crucial group to ensure the proper selection of these individuals. This structure is usually the most stable and leads to the best long term decisions.
  2. ELECTED, where the board is elected annually from the annual general meeting of the parent body. In some of these schools, the board feels it has no control whatsoever about parents who wish to promote themselves and stand for election, even if some of those individuals may be poor choices for this kind of role. This structure is the one most noted for “wild card” candidates who may be elected with inadequate screening or “from the floor” or with sincere intentions but with single focused personal agendas.
  3. ELECTED, where the board itself screens, recruits, nominates and markets these individuals to the parent assembly ahead of time to try to ensure endorsement of the board’s slate of candidates. In these schools, assuming the lack of a school crisis around election time, stability can be maintained. This is not an inherently unhealthy structure though the risks of instability are far greater than in self-perpetuating boards.
  4. APPOINTED BY OUTSIDER GROUPS, where embassy and/or key supporting corporations retain the right to appoint a certain number of board members from their own ranks. These boards usually boast stability but if current parents are absent from the board, a crisis of any kind can prompt for the call of parents to be elected to the board or chosen for the board. Such demands may be ignored in the short run but in the long run, the board risks school stability by not having some parent representation.
  5. COMBINATIONS of SELF-PERPETUATING where some are chosen by the board AND OTHERS are CHOSEN BY THE PARENT BODY and/or faculty and/or alumni group. Boards with “factions” present or with individuals chosen to “represent” faculty, parents, alumni or even students, are usually at a higher risk of long tern institutional instability. The representatives often see their role as elected voices for one group and not as trustees of the mission, whose job it is to forge a consensus to serve the needs of the school as a whole.
  6. COMBINATIONS where some board members are CHOSEN BY THE BOARD ITSELF AND OTHERS ARE CHOSEN BY OUTSIDE ENTITIES, such as embassies and/or corporations. These boards tend to be quite stable but also need to ensure a modicum of parents on the board to ensure parent voices and opinions are considered.
  7. DUAL BOARDS, where a more powerful ‘SHAWDOW” BOARD of individuals or embassies or corporations hold the real power through 2-5 individuals who act as a shadow cabinet and the rest of the “board” is made up of current parents with limited power. These boards are very interesting. The “parent” or “constituent” board is allowed to make most of the policy decisions but certain key rights are retained by the “shadow board.” Essentially the “shadow board” is a check on the board’s tendency to make decisions that are rash or not in the long term interest of the school.

One client school has half the board made up of parents from the country where the school is situated. These mostly parent board members want stability, process, happy faculty, and are committed to long term building plans. They are less concerned about English being spoken in the hallways, playgrounds and dining rooms because their primary goal is a quality academic education in English. They may not be quite so oriented toward the kind of curriculum American parents may wish. Their children will not go to the US for the continuation of their schooling.

The American or Canadian or other similar ex pat families who are passing through, and who become elected to the board, are more interested in how their children will adjust back home and therefore the integrity and continuity of the curriculum. They want change now, progress now, and they want that new innovation in place NOW. They will not benefit from its implementation two years from now. They tend to be less concerned about process and future building needs. They will not be there for those new buildings in any case.

Two such different groups on the same board can have very different views about governance. They have very different views about the school’s mission.

John Littleford
Senior Partner