School boards not for the faint hearted
Expectations of school boards are changing, and their makeup is evolving accordingly.
As recently as a decade ago, well-intentioned individuals and parents of students filled most seats on school boards.
By and large, all wanted to give back to the school community.
Today, schools are increasingly consumer-oriented, face greater competition, have more rigorous and complex compliance regimes, and experience heightened legal demands.
Those changes have required school boards to transition from being committees of well-meaning parents to collectives of highly skilled professionals from diverse backgrounds, like the make-up of a company board.
Today’s school boards are likely to feature members with backgrounds in marketing and public relations, information technology, finance, law and human resources.
But having one or more area of expertise does not guarantee success as a school board member.
While school board mandates vary enormously, there is invariably a common set of personal attributes that make the difference between a board receiving a gold star for strong performance or a large black dot for dysfunctional behaviour.
Serving on a school board is not for the faint-hearted.
The way board members behave individually, or even as a group, will affect the overall culture.
A school board’s culture is reflective of the expectations members have of themselves and each other and, most importantly, the behaviours they display before, during, and after board meetings.
Leadership experts agree that the culture at the top – in this case, the board – filters through to the school and most likely affects a school’s performance, underscoring the extreme importance of effective governance.
If you are an experienced school board member you will be familiar with the scenario of a board considering an important topic, only for the discussion to be dominated by two or three members.
One member directs a disrespectful remark to another and, before you know it, the entire meeting time has been spent on the one topic without delivering a resolution. As the meeting closes, you can cut the air with a knife.
Following the meeting, individuals make calls in private to other members to express their dismay, dislike, disappointment and disrespect.
Those actions do not constitute a healthy school board culture of openness and transparency.
Far too often dysfunctional behaviour gets in the way of board members sharing their expertise and discharging their responsibilities in an effective way.
The dysfunction can stem from: overcommitted school board members who rarely attend meetings because of responsibilities elsewhere; others who fail to understand the difference between oversight and micromanagement; and board members who have hidden agendas and serve for personal rather than altruistic reasons.
Some board members come to meetings unprepared, others break board confidences and trust by sharing sensitive information with outsiders, while others still try to speak for the entire board by prefacing their comments with ‘we think’, ‘we believe’ or ‘we have thought about it’ instead of using ‘I’.
And then there are board members who radiate negative energy, are indecisive and solicit complaints from teachers and parents.
Being a valuable board member requires more than just good intentions.
It starts with thorough preparation, including reading board papers prior to the meeting to enable responsible and value-adding participation during the meeting.
Effective board members serve the interests of the school, teachers and students rather than a single constituency, which means they need to appreciate a school’s unique and shifting needs. They must also ask sincere questions of school leaders to explore issues, challenges and opportunities, but always understand they should oversee without overreaching.
The most effective school board members are able to express their views in a confident way, listen respectfully to differing views, and avoid being intimidated by louder, aggressive or more insistent board members. It is worth remembering that all board members have equal rights.
It is these constructive behaviours that help to produce a healthy and positive school board culture, which in turn is underpinned by a supportive group dynamic and an effective decision-making process.
And if you take on the role of chairing a school board, there is an extra layer of responsibility in being able to focus the board’s attention on the most appropriate topics, encouraging the independence of members, drawing upon the varying expertise of individual members and, of course, providing members feedback on their performance.
A healthy school board culture will ensure an atmosphere of respect, openness and cohesion, where there is no appetite or room for personal agendas to play out.
Every single school board member, not just the chairperson, has an important role to play in achieving that type of culture.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA