The Governance Game – Part II: The Role of Change in School Instability

The Governance Game – Part I: What’s At Risk For Independent Schools
August 1, 2015
The Governance Game – Part IV: Board Subcommittees – Their Role In Supporting The Mission and Stability of the School
August 1, 2015
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The Governance Game – Part II: The Role of Change in School Instability

(Part Two of a Four Part Letter on Governance)

Why are 80% of all heads fired?: The loss of institutional memory.

It is very important for schools to keep their effective board members beyond the standard two three year terms and the standard two year term for board chairs.

Such limits were set with the thought that weak, disinterested and noncontributing trustees would then be forced off after six years. However, with the onset of more assertive “committees on trustees” trustee evaluation and assessment is now occurring every year in many schools. It is no longer necessary, nor wise, to allow an ineffective trustee to serve out a term. That frees up the opportunity for longer terms for those whose service is of great value to schools

Many schools are now moving to one five year term for the board chair, or a three year term, with two one year extensions, assuming both the individual and the board wish to continue the relationship. This is much healthier than the current dominant pattern of one two year term.

Institutional memory is the responsibility of the committee on trustees. The reason why most heads do not survive their fourth board chair is that the fourth chair has little or no memory of why this particular head was retained in the first place. With high board turnover, frequent turnover of chairs, and the departure of heads every five years or so, institutional memory falls to the faculty. The power vacuum created by so much turnover in leadership roles is ceded to the faculty who then become more resistant to changes initiated by the next head. Why change when the leadership will leave again shortly, in any case?

Littleford & Associates has noticed patterns that show that untimely and often sudden termination of heads tends to occur most frequently in certain types of schools:

  1. Day schools more than boarding schools. This appears to be because parents/board members are on site more often.
  2. Elementary schools more than K-12 or secondary schools. Parents of elementary school children follow those children closely and spend much volunteer time on campus. Boards tend to be very responsive to parental criticism of management.
  3. Coeducational and girls schools more than boys schools. Boys schools seem to have more board members who are alumni and business types and follow closely the rules about the separation of the role of boards as policy makers as opposed to managers.

Turnover of heads occurs more frequently:

  1. Where current parents account for 80% or more of the board, as opposed to those with 50% or fewer present parents on the board. Parents tend to have more of an immediate concern with their children in attendance now. That immediate concern needs to be offset by past parents, grandparents, friends and graduates, who tend to take a longer view from the past to the future.
  2. Where people without business experience account for more than 50% of the board, as opposed to where at least 50% of the board is made up of people with business experience in managing people and large organizations. Board members with business experience, especially those who manage large numbers of employees, seem to understand better the separation of policy from management roles.
  3. In schools where boards have many subcommittees, involving parents and teachers, as opposed to those with a small number of subcommittees with board members only. Heads can only work with so many trustees and so many subcommittees. Parents on subcommittees can sometimes influence them inappropriately, as in pressuring to reject necessary tuition increases. Yet these parents were not trained nor chosen as board members.
  4. On boards with “education” and “personnel” subcommittees as opposed to those without those subcommittees. These committees tend to function within the realm that the head and professional staff are retained to manage. Often boards will ask an educator from the board to chair the education committee and a person from the human resource business world to chair the personnel committee. These individuals often have training and views that are very specific, come from their cultures, and may clash with the head’s vision.

Schools with higher head turnover, also tend to be those where:

  1. The strategic planning process involves large numbers of many constituencies who are included as partners with the board in designing a strategic plan. Not all school cultures are prepared politically for this “wide net” approach to strategic planning. In some schools at certain points in time, a broad based “democratic” process of strategic planning creates expectations from constituents that cannot be met. In cultures where the school climate has underlying tensions between faculty and administration or faculty and board, or school and parents, such attempts at consensus building can result in a less healthy school culture as the process itself politicizes the culture even more.
  2. Where the evaluation of the head involves constituencies beyond the board. One recent head, after 16 years of service, prompted his board to evaluate him. They did so. They conducted focus groups of teachers, parents, students and alumni. They then fired the head, telling him that the board had made two mistakes 1. waiting 16 years to evaluate him; and 2. Conducting interview, about his performance with constituents who sought the opportunity to “pay back” the head for decisions he had made with which they did not agree.
  3. In a setting where the head moves too quickly on changes in school culture, before first establishing his or her own “reservoir of political good will. Heads who move quickly on agendas that are resented by the faculty may experience a very short tenure.

Board governance is further affected by change issues that can stir up a faculty, and therefore often mobilize the students, and parent body. They include

  1. Changes in salary structure and/or perception of poor raises. This is particularly the case now when teachers see the discrepancy between their living standards and those of school parents growing beyond anything they could have imagined.
  2. Initiation of an evaluation process. Most schools lack them and DO need them but teachers fear them or agree only to “self review” or “peer review” or “professional growth plans”, rather than evaluation which involves any administrative review or oversight. Such plans need to be developed carefully, often over a 2-3 year period.
  3. Changes in the schedule. While such changes often seem minor to administrators, they are major to teachers.
  4. Increases in teacher workloads. Teachers in schools with 3 classes and one preparation tend to think of themselves as overworked fully as much as teachers in schools where the load is 5-6 classes per day and 3 preparations. Teachers fill up available time with tasks that they value.
  5. Changes or initiatives in curriculum. This is especially so in the whole realm of technology. Computer assisted instruction in the classroom, as opposed to word processing or Internet research, is often feared as few are accustomed to the practice.
  6. The termination of a teacher. No matter how secure a teacher thinks he or she is, when a colleague’s contract is not renewed, all teachers think: “this could have been me.” Heads who counsel out or fire a teacher need to have established clear due process and need to have built up a considerable reservoir of political good will among the faculty.
  7. Change in head or division head. Change in leadership is very frightening to teachers unless the head or division head who is leaving is so disliked, any alternative is better.
  8. Changes in board chair. While teachers may not be as cognizant of the danger of this change, heads are. The second most threatening change in an independent school (after the change of head) is the change of board chair.

The message from these patterns is for boards to remain stable in membership, and balanced in their decision making. Effective hairs need to stay on longer, encouraging heads to take on change houghtfully and at a reasonable pace. Chairs should counsel ontinuity of leadership by supporting the head publicly and onsistently when change periodically leads to the expected acuity, student or parent reaction.

Governance III

John Littleford
Senior Partner