Important or Urgent: What Makes It on Your Board Meeting Agenda?
by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
Does the order of your board meeting agenda ever change? Or does last month’s agenda simply get recycled with a new date and a different person assigned to bring refreshments and close in prayer? Does the tyranny of the urgent prevent your board from focusing on the more important issues facing the school’s future? Is the principal’s report always placed ahead of the finance committee report? Does your school board spend the majority of its time on matters pertaining to the current school year, or on the school of the future?
Increasingly, school boards are being challenged to be more strategic, to spend up to 80% of their time on the school that doesn’t currently exist – your school next year, in five years, or in 2024 when your current preschoolers will graduate. Ideally, the remaining 20% of a board’s time should be spent monitoring matters relating to the current school year.
Consider the following scenario: 1 John, a quiet, mild-mannered board member, was frustrated that yet again an urgent item was on the board’s agenda, trumping the anticipated discussion on the impact that emerging educational trends will have on the school. The board was told they had to make a decision that day. This was extremely aggravating for John whose nature was to reflect and think about possibilities before he made any decision either at work or home. The problem was that he was not good at challenging the chair or the principal in such a situation.
Susan, on the other hand, harshly criticized George, the principal, for not sending background information in the board’s pre-meeting package. George ignored her comment, insisting he needed a decision that day and pointing out that the board members now had the information. If they are so educated and bright, he thought to himself, they can make a decision. All they have to do is follow my recommendation. Susan, raising her voice, said, “If it was that important, then why didn’t you send the information in advance?” She continued by asking questions – a lot of questions. George could not fully answer all of the questions, and raising his voice, said, “All I am asking is for you to trust my judgment as principal and approve this today.” George was further offended when another board member shared that it was not about trusting the principal’s judgment or recommendation; instead it was about making sound decisions and policies on behalf of the school community as a whole.
Instead of a healthy, strategic discussion as the agenda had indicated, strong emotions erupted, leading to threats and political statements. Board members argued. Some were sympathetic to the principal’s request and ready to move on, while others wanted to mull it over. Confidence in the principal and chair were definitely weakened. In haste, relationships had been damaged and would take some time to repair.
If a similar situation happens to your board, what can you do?
As Chair/Board Member:
Ask if the issue is truly urgent. There is a high probability that the urgent matter is operational if the decision needs to be made today. If it is an operational issue, redirect the discussion to the development of a policy, otherwise delegate the decision to the principal, removing it from further board discussion.
Board meetings are to be strategic and long-term focused and therefore no decision typically is so urgent that prior information cannot be provided, especially with today’s technology. Insist that information be provided well in advance, prior to making a decision.
Do not force a close decision for the sake of expedience. Give board members time to digest the information and make a decision the next week or month via a conference call, or better still, at the next board meeting. Giving in to urgency often leads to a poor decision, and reduces the respect of people who take a more thoughtful approach to making decisions.
Help administrators understand that the board’s role is to represent and protect the interests of the school community as a whole. In that role, their fiduciary responsibilities require them to make decisions with analysis and information rather than rubber stamping administrators’ recommendations.
Recognize that the majority of people want information in advance so they can reflect on the options, facts, and situation.
Recognize that many people do not make important decisions quickly, such as the same day as receiving new information, even if you think the preferred option makes total sense. Due to the power of our subconscious, almost everyone makes better decisions after sleeping on new information.
Recognize that one of the board’s key roles is to help make sound strategic and long-term decisions, and to do that well its board members need information, analysis, and options.
Most items that require quick decisions tend to be operational and managerial in nature. Boards should ensure that policies and procedures are in place to assist the administration in being able to make these decisions without board involvement.
When board members gather together a dozen times a year or less, the interruption of continuity can make for stilted board encounters. It takes individuals time and effort to get back into the flow of their board work, and if there is not adequate pre-reading and mental preparation, board meetings can deteriorate into a ticking and checking exercise rather than a debating and directing one. 2
What can you do to ensure that the important, not the urgent, make it on the board agenda?
At least annually, identify pertinent educational trends or issues to be tackled by the board. Even with one or two days of strategic planning annually, there are usually critical issues that can’t be fully explored during the retreat. Therefore, create a full year board agenda to ensure issues that need to be dealt with are spread out over future board meetings agendas.
Set aside a meaningful amount of time to discuss the impact emerging trends will have in the future and what adjustments should be made to either leverage the opportunities they afford or manage the associated risks.
Design board agendas so as to focus discussion on the strategic decision points to be discussed. For example:
Please come prepared to discuss the pros and cons of addressing the looming budget deficit
a) through staff reductions or b) by accepting
the recommendations of the finance committee
to raise tuition fees by 10%. (Refer to the preliminary analysis attached.)
Not only will issues identification in the agenda help board members mentally prepare, but the outcomes are likely to be more tangible.
Incorporate small group discussions into the board meeting. Challenge groups of two or three board members to discuss either the pros or cons of alternatives to deal with an issue. Not only will this get everyone involved, but chances are high that more information and debate will lead to a better decision.3
Board chairs can increase the level of engagement among board members setting the tone for board discussion. Ask, “What is the downside of going ahead with this?” or “What are we missing?” And if the tension mounts, reassure board members that it is good to hear a variety of viewpoints on the way to the best solution. Encourage them not to take offense if others don’t embrace their ideas – it is still good to get them on the table for consideration.
The majority of board agenda items ought to reflect strategic initiatives that will advance the mission of the school for years to come. Is your board spending most of its time discussing the urgent or the important? It may be time to re-examine what gets on your board agenda and how board meetings are conducted.
- Adapted from STRIVE article, Important or Urgent: What Gets on Your Board Agendas? October 2010.
- STRIVE article: When Governing Leads to Disengagement… Adjust. Mary Lynn McPherson, August 2010.