Developing Healthy Board Governance: What to Do about the Parent Driven Board

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Developing Healthy Board Governance: What to Do about the Parent Driven Board

A new board member recently told me the reason that he will make time for the trustee role despite his busy schedule is to be with his child more often on a daily basis and observe his multiple athletic talents more closely. He also wants to assess from that position “whether the complaints about the coaching staff are really valid.”

In interviewing another new trustee for a prominent day school, this individual gave this reason for joining the Board: “The School is a highly regarded local resource and it is an honor to be asked to serve. Aside from the interesting people with whom I will work, the position gives me an opportunity to influence my child’s placement and curriculum in these important early grades. It is an honor to be able to have a voice in matters.” When I began to chuckle and asked if he were joking with me, he responded, “No, why would I be joking?”

I replied that it appeared to me that the Committee on Trustees (Nominating Committee) had not explained to him the inherent conflict between the role of parent as a mission focused trustee versus the role of parent as an advocate for the specific needs of one’s child.

It was not the first time that I had heard his telling comment: “Frankly, if the Committee had mentioned to me that I would be relinquishing any parental rights as opposed to gaining them in agreeing to serve as a trustee, I would have declined the invitation! It is far more important to me to be able to fight for the needs of my child than to serve on the Board, despite the prestige factor.”

I could not fault him for his honest answer. The Committee on Trustees had failed him and the School. Actually MOST of these committees neglect to raise with prospective parent trustees the conflict which the dual role of trustee and parent represents and the absolute need to separate their own children’s needs from the school’s interest in all dealings with teachers, the administration and even fellow board members.

In observing a recent board meeting as part of a governance visit, one supposedly well trained trustee said: “While this matter of when we begin cursive writing is not about my own child, I do believe that I speak for other parents when I say that the Administration is not beginning this process soon enough and it is causing stress to parents with children in the primary grades”

There is an NAIS Principle of Good Practice that states: “Trustees do not become involved in curriculum, personnel or management issues.” This is one of the most frequently violated Principles, and many heads simply have given up on trying to encourage its observance.

The vast majority of day and international school trustees are current parents. The by-laws for some schools actually prohibit anyone other than current parents from serving on the Board. These schools have built a “time bomb” into their governance structures. Without proper and regular training, many of these trustees will lose sight of their larger mission-based role and instead may become embroiled in the politics of curriculum, personnel and change management.

I. When Trustees Make Inappropriate Alliances

In one elementary day school, a very successful ten year Head found that a group of trustees was meeting secretly about her, specifically about the feeling that some key primary teachers lacked respect for her leadership. Teachers were talking to parents in an obvious attempt to undercut the Head, and one Kindergarten teacher upon departing abruptly in late spring announced publicly that she was leaving because she could not work under the Head’s “stubborn leadership style.”

Several parents took up this teacher’s cause and aligned with a few others who had left the School in the past five years in order to build a case that their departures were due to the decision making style of the Head. The fact that these teachers all had personal reasons for leaving relating to spouse’s careers and professional advancement was shoved aside in order to allow these statements to build political momentum.

Sensing that the Head may be weakened by this most recent Kindergarten teacher departure, partnerships were created among a few parent members of the Board and three of the disgruntled former teachers. The Head over a ten year period had built the School’s program, resources, physical plant and reputation to a community high. Her very successful track record seemed forgotten, however, when unhappy former teachers lined up with powerful parent trustees who had a deep loyalty to the Kindergarten teacher.

A former Chair of the School contacted this consultant for assistance to the Board but said that in effect the Head had already been “fired” privately in a rump session of a section of the Board. The current Chair was under too much fire from the current parent trustees aligned with the anti-Head teacher group to undertake any form of leadership role or ask for outside assistance.

The Head herself contacted this consultant to say that she knew the rug had been pulled out from under her but was unaware of the details of how she was to “resign”. She as yet had no formal notice of her “firing” but knew from the rumor market that it was imminent.

II. “Blowing with the Wind”: Shifting Loyalties

At another School, a wise and well regarded trustee who was to become the next Chair suddenly turned hostile to the Head of School when he dismissed the child of a friend over an issue of drug abuse on campus. Although the Head followed School policy, the Chair Elect simply felt that the punishment for this child was too harsh and reflected badly on the School and Board. He resigned from the Board in a manner that clearly indicated he could not support that Head.

In that same region there was an incident at a second School in which that Head faced a similar circumstance. After initially making the same decision for removal of the student, he backed off under heavy parental and Board pressure. Word got to the first Head and his own school community that in contrast, his colleague had acted with reasonable compassion. The first Head took heat from the parent community and Board for several months, but not from the faculty who appreciated his making the tough call.

Six months later, the positions were reversed as parents at the first School began to realize that they wanted a leader who upheld the morals and values of the School. The Head at the other regional School was forced to leave as first the faculty and then the Board changed its opinion and attacked his initial decision.

Many international schools are now trying to change their core structures to allow past parents and even alumni to serve but the Articles of Incorporation often require that such modifications receive a 2/3 majority vote at an Annual General Meeting. Consequently, the success of such a move is unlikely without extensive “lobbying” in the form of small group conversations between administration and board and parents. This consultant has been asked to help guide a number of these schools in holding such meetings to educate constituents about the risks of boards composed of 100% current parents and the benefits to the school of more heterogeneous representation.

Boarding schools generally are spared much parental overreaction. In deciding to enroll a child in a boarding school, parents in effect decide to turn over the day to day responsibility of their child’s education and social, extracurricular and athletic activities to the boarding school community, i.e., the Latin phrase, “in locus parentis.”

Boarding schools tend to be plagued more by alumni trustees who can be moved to very strong, emotionally charged responses to feedback from valued, long term teachers with whom they formed bonds as former students. Alumni can become just as agitated as poorly screened and trained parent trustees of day schools when they build websites and begin intensive and argumentative dialogues about what is wrong with the school’s administration, athletic performance and/or the way in which the board is managing the endowment.

III. The Conundrum

Parent trustees are the most loyal, generous, committed and energetic of all trustees. At the same time, they are the dominant cause of unhealthy day school governance because they can be the most “hysterical” and impulsive board members when incidents arise that may affect directly their own child, the child of a friend or a favored disgruntled teacher(s). When they operate in that reactive mode, they forget to take off the “parent hat” when they voice their complaint about an issue. Teachers and staff are usually well aware of who the trustees are, especially in day school settings because all too often they are often omnipresent in the daily life of the school.

How do we channel the skills, talents, enthusiasm and loyalty of parent trustees most productively to the schools’ greatest advantage?

The answers lie in the following: very careful screening and selection of new trustees; appropriate orientation and governance training of all trustees, especially those likely to exercise authority to advantage their own situation; appropriate Board Subcommittees; discipline and perhaps even removal of trustees who fail to adhere to the Principles of Good Practice; and formal and appropriate head evaluation

A. Screening and Training

The place to begin is in the screening process for prospective trustees. The screening process starts witha “cultivation” and assessment process that ideally should be initiated some considerable time before a trustee is asked to serve. In that measured context, it is easier to determine how a trustee may act once he or she is chosen for board work.

Explaining up front in the “vetting” process that in becoming a trustee, a parent has LESS versus more ability to influence the selection of his or her children’s teachers, curriculum content, and the coaching of his or her young athletes would weed out many unsuitable candidates early on.

At one client school a few newly appointed trustees revealed at this consultant’s governance training workshop that they were also “room mothers”. When this consultant suggested that they might wish to resign from that role which involved regular participation in the classroom and interface with the faculty which had a frequent tendency to go to parents with their complaints, they balked. “We would rather be room mothers!”, they exclaimed. It certainly would have been helpful if the Committee on Trustees had known their preference before selecting them.

Prospective parent trustees also need to be warned in advance that if an academic, athletic or disciplinary issue arises concerning their children (and it inevitably will) they may need to retreat and let one’s spouse deal with the issue if necessary. “Recusal” from the Board is often a good decision until the issue is resolved.

However, even the involvement of the spouse is a delicate matter. A board member’s spouse also does not receive more “rights” or access to teachers, coaches or administrators including the head of school.

Furthermore, the discretion of the spouse and the candidate’s resolve not to disclose discussions at board meetings to him or her must receive consideration in the candidate screening process.

All of the above warnings and the reminder that the only agenda which a board member is allowed to address and represent is that of the School need to be reinforced annually during board governance training

B. Appropriate Board Subcommittees

Many schools unknowingly invite trouble through their board subcommittee structures. It is this consultant’s view that Athletic, Education, Personnel, Legal, Community Relations/Marketing and Spiritual Life Committees all represents potential intrusion upon curricular, operational and management issues which are the domain of the Head of School. An Athletic Committee, in particular, is a tradition at some of our schools, and although well-intentioned, it invites parent trustees into potentially dangerous areas of micromanagement and presents many tempting opportunities for wearing “the parent hat.” Thereby the Booster Club enters into the deliberations of the Board.

C. Discipline

Even in schools that DO undertake a modicum of such care, trustees still will step off the plate and engage in inappropriate intrusion into the academic and personnel life of the school UNLESS the chair is strong enough and willing to take to task the errant trustee. Few Chairs have the courage to do this particularly when the offending trustee is a friend or the parent of their child’s friend. Yet as in the examples above, it takes only a very few board members “leaving the reservation” to result in the downfall of a head, often causing very serious and at best unsettling repercussions for the school in the long run.

D. Head Evaluation

Trustees in general and parent trustees in particular, often find it difficult to evaluate the head of school fairly in a process that includes mutually agreed up front goals for the head for that year. These goals should be clear, limited to no more than five and be approved by the entire board early in the fall.

To undercut a head by changing the rules or allowing an incident to “infect’ the evaluation process during the course of the year is both unfair and unprofessional. As we saw in the earlier examples, this usually occurs as disgruntled parents and/or staff link up with parent trustees. Such trustees violate the cardinal rule of supporting your head of school publicly and privately provide counsel unless and until an informed, measured and intelligent decision is made not to renew his or her contract.

IV. Summary

In working recently with another board, a mild mannered but respected head found herself with many enthusiastic, talented and bright trustees whose skills in a range of financial and marketing areas prompted her to “invite” their assistance in several areas of school management. However, such an invitation must be issued very astutely.

Managing trustees with passion and a myriad of skills and properly guiding them to benefit the School is an important part of a head’s leadership. One of the best places to involve trustees productively is fund raising as their professional and personal connections and access may be invaluable. On the other hand,

Heads need to learn not only how to guide and limit trustee involvement but how successfully to empower talented trustees who are willing to make a difference. If these trustees are also parents, the head and chair must make clear to them not to cross the line of appropriate participation in the School’s financial management, marketing and fund raising realms and also to keep in check their “parent” perspectives and agendas.

Parent trustees are mostly a joy to heads. For the few that do not act professionally according to the Principles of Good Practice, life for heads can be made miserable and the health of the school can be placed at risk.

John Littleford
Senior Partner