One of the key principles in healthy governance is: “Management manages and boards govern.” The NAIS Principles of Good Practice for Boards state: “Trustees do not become involved in specific management, curriculum or personnel issues.” Recently at a Littleford & Associates workshop on board governance, a trustee responded to this statement by protesting, “But that is all the fun stuff!” Indeed, sometimes boards become entrapped in the internal “fun” stuff and lose sight of the external “powerful” stuff. The latter forms the strategic issues that will determine whether the school survives and thrives, or falters and fails.
What are those strategic issues? Schools have focused consistently on funding new buildings, improving technology, and increasing endowment. However, the real strategic issues go beyond these classic (but still important) goals to include:
Ignoring these strategic issues may undermine fundraising for important long range needs.
A three hour workshop for all 25 participants followed. It began with “word development” on mission. Each participant was asked to write down three words that most accurately and passionately conveyed the School’s mission. Those words were placed on flip charts. Each person then voted for the top three words on the flipchart. Five focus groups, each with a cross section of participants, then used the words with the highest votes to formulate a mission phrase that would accurately reflect the past, honestly convey the present and apply to the future. The group was asked further to formulate a phrase or acronym that would be memorable for any student, parent or teacher and could have a “story” related to each.
The five groups presented their ideas and voted that the best word representing this residential school for troubled boys was “SHAPES”. “Our School SHAPES the boy by providing a:
Safe and Supportive Environment
Hope for his future
Advocacy for his needs
Preparation and education for life long learning
Empowerment and assurance of some
Success in his life.”
Not only was the acronym memorable, but the words were powerfully accurate and generated excitement.
A similar process was followed for giving feedback on the 42 possible challenges listed by the focus groups. Through discussions, votes, and filtering, they agreed upon and ranked five key strategic challenges and decided upon the timeline for implementation. They formed committees and planned meetings to generate 4-6 action plans for each of the five challenges. The process was empowering, and the enthusiasm created was palpable and refreshing.
Boards need a deep familiarity with the principles of good governance and the importance of retaining the head of school whenever possible. The board should sponsor an annual retreat to review the progress of governance and the strategic plan. The boards that claim they do not need such annual governance reviews are often the same ones that “trip” over an issue, fire their heads and/or precipitate a crisis.
Real board development and training is a delicate process that involves a dialogue, discussion of substantive issues and objective feedback that seldom can be accomplished solely through the use of questionnaires.
A client had a board member with close ties to a long term faculty member and former classmate. Feeling that this teacher was underpaid, he asked to see individual salaries for all teachers.
The Head declined, with the Board’s support. The board member then asked the state’s attorney general’s office to intervene and threatened a lawsuit against the School unless the information was forthcoming. The trustee finally admitted that he disagreed with the Board’s recent positive evaluation of the Head and felt he should be dismissed. Absent the ability to achieve that goal, he pressed on other fronts where he and the Head had clashed, including this salary issue. This individual cost the School energy, focus, time, and money for eighteen months until he was finally persuaded to resign. The pursuit of a personal agenda derailed this board from focusing on strategic goals.
One recent client found that due to lack of business office oversight, and some overly aggressive annual giving projections and accounting practices, it had an annual deficit of three million dollars with a nine million dollar budget. The School was unable to meet the covenants on its bond debt. To complicate the situation, a new head and the Board learned of the budgetary crisis for the first time shortly after the head’s arrival.
The School retained our Firm to recommend corrective measures that included cutting expenses, improving efficiency, raising more funds, increasing enrollment modestly and generating more revenue from profit centers. We added a crucial dimension to this assignment: When faced with a range of potential major cuts, how does a School retain institutional culture and faculty morale? How does it convey a sense of health (versus anxiety and fear of change) to prospective parents and students? The School utilizes its strengths such as a strong board chair/head partnership, a rich history and unique school culture. Mission clarity and sensitivity to history and tradition are central to controlling costs, balancing budgets, and returning to fiscal health
Another example is the vulnerability of a school to a lawsuit as a result of not admitting or retaining certain children even if the school can demonstrate that it lacks the structure, staff, mission or tools to meet their needs successfully. After unusual efforts and support, a client school felt that a child could not succeed and graduate without compromising the integrity of its diploma. Even when the court ruled in the school’s favor, public opinion was divided. A board member “crossed a boundary” by throwing his personal support behind the student.
Another school was confronted by an alumnus who claimed a teacher long since departed had molested him sexually. Unhappy with the School’s response to him, he filed a law suit. When the newspapers reported the story, other alumni made similar claims about the lack of school oversight of this teacher. The current head responded with dignity to alumni anger and hurt. Nonetheless, the School was still beset by a series of unfavorable newspaper articles. The School had resources, reputation and power on its side and yet, was battered consistently for three years. We know of seven great independent schools worldwide where a similar situation has occurred within the past five years.
Plans are needed for preventing such events and outlining their proper handling and the nature and mode of reporting them if they do occur. Clear boundaries need to be set, however, relating to the board’s versus the administration’s role here.
It only takes five seriously unhappy teachers in a faculty of fifty to undermine a positive school environment. Schools can assess and help turn around a school culture by “engaging teachers and administrators in deep reflection, clarifying their thoughts, actions and language and thereby helping schools to move beyond symbol and rhetoric to real strategic issues.” (Quote from a recent client).
Another school has a unique niche in serving gifted students. It lacks the green space and impressive facilities of many of our independent schools. Yet this consultant found high parent satisfaction and a very professional unified (and modestly compensated) faculty which has created a learning environment where children feel academically challenged, emotionally safe and socially comfortable. Why?
Faculty culture in this school was healthy due at least in part to strong leadership by the head, her careful hiring for “mission”, and a strong and committed faculty who like and trust each other and their head and believe deeply in the mission of gifted education.
Building a trusting relationship with the local media will help to manage a story or issue that may be misrepresented because of a complete lack of knowledge of the school’s mission and goals and the facts surrounding an incident.
Another recent client handled a media event in a positive and a politically savvy way. When students were penalized for using drugs on a school sponsored field trip, the School communicated with the local reporter about its firm disciplinary stance and the high moral road the School chose. A few involved parents had contacted the same newspaper to try to undercut and challenge the School. The newspaper chose to highlight the School’s position and the lesson for all. Community respect for the School rose.
An ideal opportunity to launch a strategic planning process is when the school is undertaking a self study toward accreditation. The two processes go hand in hand and support one another.
Curriculum for the future must go even further than serving each child’s unique needs, preparing them better and prompting them to think more critically. We have struggled to introduce collaborative learning in schools where teachers do not even visit each others’ classrooms out of “discomfort” or fear of invading a peer’s turf.
Real cutting edge learning must examine how faculty cultures become ones where self reflection and honest evaluation by peers and administration are a daily element of enhancing the collegial dialogue. Effective evaluation does not destroy but supports real collegiality and is not simply “peer review”, “portfolio sharing”, “goal setting” or “professional growth”. Littleford & Associates has helped over 700 schools implement evaluation systems that make teachers feel valued, accountable, and supported while providing the meaningful feedback that all teachers need to improve.
Designing an evaluation process is the management’s responsibility. Ensuring that such a system IS in place is a board responsibility.
In one week a school experienced a bomb scare, a tragedy involving a faculty child and the death of a student from contagious meningitis. Any one of these events could have been a major crisis. Yet the head and board worked cooperatively each time to defuse panic, sadness and fear, resulting in community bonding and stronger communications. The appropriate calm response to each incident was based upon the trust that the chair and head had in each other. They could then command broader support and engage everyone on a range of levels in implementing plans already in place for handling a medical emergency and school wide trauma.
Insurance agents, architects, psychologists, attorneys whose firms represent the school or any other vendor should not serve on the board of an independent school, immediately before, during and right after providing any PAID service to the school. Violating this rule can invite a crisis, a lawsuit or a loss of community credibility in the integrity of the board and thus the school.
In one case, a board member whose company insured the School was sued by the Board when the school building developed cracks, and the insurance company refused to provide replacement coverage, citing a little known provision in the policy.
The average tenure of school heads is about 5.5 years and the average length of trustee service is 3.5 years. Due to these patterns, there need to be more “touchstones” of approved and understood tools to retain mission integrity and protect the school from a crisis. The strategic plan helps to ensure this. Simultaneously, we must improve governance practices to define boundaries of authority and to extend the tenure for heads, board chairs and board members.
The strategic planning process should not be a mechanistic uniform checklist of “do’s” and “don’ts” but rather a discussion about how to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks facing the school. Littleford & Associates uses strategic planning (“broad brush” or “focused) to engage participants in an enthusiastic and thoughtful dialogue centered on the unique mission of each school while retaining the ultimate decision making authority in the board of trustees.