Managing Stakeholder Discontent: A Rising Tide 

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Managing Stakeholder Discontent: A Rising Tide 

Mark Ulfers, the Editor of the  “AAIE COVID-19 Briefing” comments:

Once again, John identifies the stress points and the high-grade fever within international schools as the push-pull of a global pandemic and more infectious variants continue to move across geography.  He also calls out our DEI work and our challenge of authentically addressing diversity and inclusion in our school. John hits perfect pitch, as if he has been listening in on our CONVERSATIONS each Thursday.  An important read to pass along to your senior leadership team and trustees. Here is an article that defines the problem and then speaks to solutions.  


Most school boards and heads worldwide faced a very challenging last 18 months. In the next few months, it is likely that they will face another set of challenges stemming from cultural and political divides among parent, alumni and staff groups. They will also face issues of transparency in terms of setting tuition and fees, enrollment management and balance and the direction in which curriculum is heading. These may invite board and constituent intrusion in school operations.

What follows is an example for boards and heads to guide them in how to confront and manage a crisis. The case study explains the lessons learned along the way.

One School, where students of color comprise about 25% of its enrollment, unveiled its year-long effort to incorporate curriculum changes relating to black history in America and systemic racism issues in general.  It also plans to hire several diversity coordinators. The Head is wise and experienced and is aware that she treads a very careful line between moving too quickly and moving too slowly to address highly sensitive and potentially divisive issues. In the midst of her challenges, there was a highly publicized newspaper article about some school New York City Heads making more than one million a year (well above her total compensation) but also facing enormous headwinds on both sides of the cultural divide about race/diversity and curriculum.  How will we compensate our valued Heads as the pressures of the job keep increasing?

When the Diversity Director spoke to this Board about progress made in curriculum in the middle school, it all seemed logical, rational and measured to the Board Members.

Students began to speak to their parents about some of the vocabulary they were hearing in class and parents began to ask, “What is Critical Race Theory and is my School teaching this?  What is this group Pandora that we have heard about, and will it provide our curriculum materials?”

Some teachers opposed to the curriculum were apparently having side bar conversations with some parents. A group of “concerned” parents crafted a letter signed by 100 other parents and then sent it to the Board Chair. In the letter they, like parents at a prominent New York City School, wanted more information about the Board’s policy on CRT. The parents demanded input on curriculum in the future and also set a deadline for the Board and Head to answer their queries.

While the Head and Board contemplated how to respond, all parents received an unsigned letter from presumably yet another group. This letter demanded that the Board and School leadership guarantee that teaching about systemic racism in the US is not a part of the School’s culture or mission. The letter stated that while racism is abhorrent, “our children cannot be led to believe that they or we had anything to do with these past incidents and history.”

The firestorm continued. Following consultation with a crisis management group, the Head wrote a thoughtful, moderate and carefully worded letter that did not make promises about backing away from the planned curriculum changes but also indicated a willingness to listen.  The response from the disgruntled parents was that the Head had given no clear answers to their concerns.

The Chair and Head decided to assemble an advisory committee whose members would represent a balanced set of views on the subject and would review the curriculum and its underlying issues. To complicate matters further, another substantial segment of the parent body came forth to say that they did not want either parent intrusion into curriculum or a curriculum that “whitewashes” US history on racial issues. Now what?

This is the pressure cooker that many heads and chairs worldwide are now confronting. This Board regularly engaged in board governance training including reviewing the principles of good practice for boards. However, this Board did not pay enough to shoring up the Board so that it could weather, and react appropriately to an unforeseen crisis.  It was comprised almost entirely of current parents some of whom struggled to withstand pressure from their friends.  They were caught flat-footed even though the Chair is a very conscientious and dedicated individual and loyal to the Head.

We have often stated that boards when confronted with a crisis should “circle the wagons.” That is, a board does not break ranks or engage in side bar conversations with parents and teachers. A board should unite behind the chair and head and not talk outside the board room. This School’s Board was starting to break both rules.

The other important rule for boards is “Don’t throw your head under the bus”.  That means that any crisis in a school community can lead to parents and/or staff trying to breach the board’s ranks. It is an opportunity to criticize the head for a litany of past decisions or omissions because the head now appears vulnerable. This is not unlike sharks smelling blood in the water, and this scenario happens all too often. All of a sudden a board may want to revisit the head’s evaluation and its evaluation process. In some cases, heads in these situations are understandably overly defensive.  It is never a good strategy for heads, even long term heads, to put up barriers constantly when challenged or questioned.

So many times our clients talk to us about the “elephant in the room.”  It is whatever topic that all want to discuss, but no one will, and it gets thrown into the mix when there is a stakeholder crisis and the head comes under fire. Most heads can survive it if they have developed enough political capital over the years.

In NYC, a valued head of only three years stepped down under much pressure and negative publicity about the School. This is a case in point of how many heads must feel: you cannot win, or so it may seem.

Head turnover, especially in a head’s first five years in a job, is mostly due to the loss of institutional memory on a board or new heads undertaking change far too quickly. But it can also result from a crisis that has been poorly managed, and often the board is at least partially to blame. However, sometimes it is no one’s fault at all. It is simply an issue that divides an already culturally vulnerable population of parents, teachers and alumni.  In fairness, it is a lot to ask of some board members that they stand strong against angry headwinds when their own parent friends are deeply engaged in attacking the school and the board.

Good advice to boards and heads when coming under fire from stakeholder anger is the following: do not overreact; be thoughtful in the one and only written response you convey as you often do not get a second chance; and create listening opportunities for the stakeholders (usually parent groups) that are small in size, and promote an honest and open dialogue about the issues from both the parent and the school perspective. Listening is key but not in a town meeting type forum which usually creates a negative tone, angry comments, uncivil behavior and almost always makes matters worse.

Board governance training is an ongoing need. The most important committee of the Board is the governance committee (COT in the US). It has 8 crucial functions. The chair of this committee is (or should be) the most important person on the board in terms of clout and respect from his or her peers.

The functions of this committee are: cultivate a pool of prospects far in advance of needing to ask them to serve; screen candidates carefully and thoughtfully; invite candidates including ask them about the ability to take off their parent “hat”; orient them to the history of school, its by-laws and articles of incorporation; undertake annual governance training; evaluate individual trustees as each one comes to the completion of a term and is up for another; and lead the board in an annual reflection of board performance collectively and individually. This committee also evaluates the chair.

The final two assignments are: warn board members of inappropriate behavior; and remove board members for continued violation of good governance practices.

Strong schools are grounded in strong boards that follow best practices in governance and that is especially so at a time of risk or crisis. Large, wealthy, powerful schools can “fall” rapidly just as much as more vulnerable, less well-funded schools. We have all seen that story recently in the national news.