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Walking In the Shoes of a Head of School

The Head of Elway Country Day School (ECDS) arose at 6 am to the sound of a loud ping on his cellphone indicating an urgent text message.  It was from her Board Chair. It referred to an e mail just sent to the Head and Chair from a “concerned” parent group. The Leader of the group demanded a town meeting with the Board and Head to answer questions about curriculum, budget, tuition, endowment, investments, faculty turnover and staff morale.  This was not the first communique from this group. The previous ones focused solely on questions about the introduction of Critical Race Theory into the School’s curriculum, but now the issues had expanded and the negative and the angry tone had escalated. The group claimed to have almost 200 supporters. 

As she read the note, the Head recognized the author as the same parent who had organized the earlier messages. Interestingly, the School had a parent conduct contract that stated that the School would not tolerate abusive behavior by parents towards the Administration or faculty or behavior that was potentially damaging to the School’s reputation. The School had never accused a parent of breaching that contract.

The School thought it had been very careful on the CRT topic and had pieced together a curriculum that was designed to reflect a broad set of views from those of all racial backgrounds. Apparently, it was not working. It also opened the door to an entire host of other issues and grievances.

The next day, another note arrived in the Chair’s mailbox demanding an answer to the note from the previous day and giving a deadline for a response. This crisis intruded upon both the Head’s and the Chair’s much deserved summer vacation time.  It was as if there was a “shadow” board dictating to the actual one.

The Board was mostly holding together but now two separate parent groups were bombarding the Board individually and collectively causing great stress. This was making it almost impossible for the Chair to call for unity and enforce it. Also, cracks were beginning to show in a Board that had previously been very unified in its support of the Head.

One Board member spoke passionately in support of teaching about the history of race and prejudice in America. Another Board member spoke about being contacted by friends who said they did not want to have their children made to feel responsible for prejudice in America. Thus, the Board was not truly unified.

A subgroup among these angry parents began interviewing teachers, especially some who had recently left or were claiming they planned to leave. The parent group said its purpose was determine whether the Head’s explanation about why people were leaving was in fact true and to assess faculty morale.

Some teachers spoke out against the Head, seeing this as an opportune moment to air grievances about decisions they did not like. Others who were not leaving or planning to leave gently reminded their peers that not everyone shared their views. But as is often the case, the loud aggressive voices drowned out the shy and restrained ones. 

The Board felt compelled to conduct a parent opinion survey.  The company that launched the survey included the question: “your view of the caliber of the leadership of the school administration”.  The question did not say specifically the head of school but that was how the respondents interpreted it.

Only 25% of the parents responded, and they were very negative. In the comments section of the survey, there were many opinions stating that “the board is supposed to represent the parents”. 

The Board was stunned by the response.  When the results of the survey were shared with the parent body, rumors began circulating that the Head might be asked to resign. The Board panicked, did not know what to do next or which issue to address first, and the Head felt under siege and without support.  

The Board, anxious and frightened by the survey results decided to buy out the last year of the Head’s contract.  Once this became known, the 75% of the parent body who had not answered the survey and had no major issues with the Head, organized in protest, and led by a group of active parents, managed to overthrow the Board. The new Board rehired the Head. 

Lessons

Always be wary of parent opinion surveys. If the School undertakes one, try not to do it during a time of crisis; never do it in the spring; and never report the results back to the parents unless you have at least a 66% rate of return.  A 25% response rate is far too low to be considered an accurate reflection of the parent body’s true views. 

Annually an independent school board should educate the parents that the board is not an elected one, not entirely made up of current parents, and represents the mission which includes the past, present and future.

This Consultant often recommends that when a board feels a crisis coming, the should board try to heal any fragmentation within it, and “circle the wagons” in a time of crisis, keep their conversations confidential and support their head.