Evaluation Of Boards: Self-Reflection In A Healthy School

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August 1, 2015
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Evaluation Of Boards: Self-Reflection In A Healthy School

More than 70% of boards evaluate the head. On the other hand, fewer than 20% of boards undertake any serious or consistent examination of their OWN practices and performance.

Boards may be described as in one of two camps:

  1. A healthy partnership between head and chair. Eighty percent of unhealthy boards suffer from a strained partnership
  2. A partnership between head and chair that others on the board regard as too close and results in other trustees feeling excluded from key decisions. Twenty percent of unhealthy boards suffer from this pattern.

In one recent case, at a school with a very collegial, “tight” relationship between the head and chair, the Board found itself deeply in debt with large unpaid capital campaign pledges. Upon the departure of the head, the dramatic debts came to light, threw a negative light on the former chair, and saddled the new head with a massive deficit. The board engaged at first in deep depression, moderate blaming, and anger toward the prior chair and head.

However, the real issue was the absence of any head evaluation or board evaluation. The head/chair partnership was working. The chair was supporting the head but there were no other checks and balances in place. The board was not privy to crucial financial data, and did not ask appropriate tough questions about the campaign results or the balance sheet.

This board is now in a quandary as to the appropriate balance between avoidance of micro managing one the one hand (a natural tendency after its recent experience) and providing proper oversight on the other. A board’s key roles are:

  1. Ensuring the integrity of the mission of the school and the strategic planning to underpin that mission.
  2. Providing and monitoring the resources, through fund raising and tuition setting, to guarantee proper program, plant and compensation for staff.
  3. Hiring, nurturing, supporting, evaluating and if necessary, changing, the head of school.

This same board is wondering now if there are too many board members who have lost interest, or lack the energy and drive to be active contributing members. There is a sense that “institutional memory’ has won out over youth, hard work, oversight roles, and energy.

Unfortunately, this board may be engaging in a little too much angst. The key to it all lies in the health of the committee on trustees, in the cultivation, screening, inviting, orienting, training, evaluating, warning and if necessary, removing trustees to ensure effective board evaluation.

Board evaluation has two components: evaluation of the board as a whole and evaluation of each trustee through personal self-reflection.

For the board as a whole, there is a list of items to consider:

  1. The effectiveness of the chair in all regards including preparing for and leading meetings, consulting with trustees, supporting and guiding the head, public persona as spokesperson for the board, and wise and thoughtful leader.
  2. The openness of board meetings balanced by effective use of trustee time. This includes meeting length, tone, content and context.
  3. Subcommittee research and recommendations and timely advance notice to trustees of reports that will be approved at upcoming board meetings
  4. Support for the head publicly and privately
  5. Financial support in the form of annual and capital giving
  6. Attendance patterns that reflect investment and involvement by trustees and a keen interest in the workings of the board.
  7. Understanding and acting on healthy board governance and calling attention to violation of governance rules when those moments occur.
  8. Effectiveness of each committee, especially the committee on trustees in meeting, deliberating, and reporting to the board.
  9. Succession planning to prepare for the next slate of officers and to ensure there is no crisis or power vacuum in the chair’s role that may prompt competition for the position behind the scenes.
  10. Decorum, civility and professional tone of meetings and in exchanges between trustees
  11. The presence of factions or obvious cliques.

For each trustee, there should be a self-evaluation regarding each one’s personal level of commitment to the board and school. This would involve filling out a questionnaire relating to personal generosity, time commitment, adherence to the Principles of Good Practice espoused by NAIS etc.

Every board needs to devote one meeting a year, or part of one meeting, to reviewing the results of the board effectiveness survey and for trustees to reflect upon their own roles and contributions.

When unhealthy behaviors on the part of individual trustees are left unchecked, or when the Committee on Trustees is not an effective working committee, several unpleasant scenarios can evolve. If the board chair, as the ultimate “overseer” of trustee behavior, is not vigilant in his responsibility, there may be subtle or overt attempts to overthrow the leadership. This may occur when all trustees do not feel involved, and dangerous cliques develop. The School is, as a result, threatened with political instability.

In one School, an especially generous trustee threatened to withdraw his financial support if not allowed to influence a particular key decision. The School had become dependent upon his generosity and he was a highly visible figure within the community, yet his demands were unreasonable. The board was finally able to negotiate the trustee’s departure while maintaining his good will.

If the Committee on Trustees does not identify, screen, and recruit strong, suitable board candidates, whom the head knows and approves and who support the head, then there may be a risk of “nominations from the floor” at an annual meeting. In one school, a board member elected in this fashion has tended towards “micromanagement” and undermined the leadership of the Head and the board chair as individual trustees press their own agendas.

A healthy board consists of trustees with: loyalty to the school’s mission as interpreted by the ENTIRE board; enthusiasm and a commitment to work and give generously; and wisdom, and the ability to apply it with resolve.

Schools with healthy boards do not have crises. They have solutions. Schools with unhealthy boards make small incidents into crises and respond with hysteria rather than wisdom.

John Littleford
Senior Partner