Orientation of New Board Trustees
by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
More than Passing on a Binder
Remember attending your first board meeting? Did the grins on the faces of some board members betray the fact that this was their last board meeting? Did one of them hand you their ominous four-inch binder overflowing with paper and give you that encouraging look that suggested how happy they were to pass on their responsibility to you, the newly elected board member? Do you remember the uncomfortable feeling of “What have I just gotten into?”
Thankfully, most Christian school board member orientations are more than a four-inch binder pass and a pat on the back from outgoing trustees.
As we enter the annual spring cycle of Christian school board elections, we do well to remind ourselves of what new board member orientation ought to look like.
First, trustees on a school board need to understand that they are entrusted with protecting the mission and purposes of the school, ensuring that the school’s Christian distinctives are not only preserved for future generations, but remain biblically relevant in our constantly changing world. Second, trustees are to direct the vision of the school, ensuring that it has a visionary and attainable strategic plan with staff, programs, facilities and resources to serve the community for years to come. This task is far too important to entrust to just anyone associated with your school – they may have a personal agenda, not a trustee agenda, motivating them.
For several years, Independent School Management has recommended a board-level mission statement (not to be confused with the school’s mission statement) that contains language to this effect. “The school’s board of trustees exists to create plans, to set policies and to make decisions that will best ensure the viability of the school’s mission for the current students’ children.” 1 I endorse this board-level commitment because it casts its focus squarely on the future of the school in the coming decades. It implicitly identifies the board of trustees’ primary focus – our future students.
Given this purposeful, board-level commitment to the long-term viability of the school and its mission, it would be naïve to assume that all your new board trustees, no matter how intelligent, accomplished, and committed to their new roles as board members, will intuitively understand how to be strong contributors to the school’s trusteeship. Therefore, new trustees require a carefully planned and creatively executed orientation.
This is particularly the case in our Christian schools because current parents comprise the majority of positions on the board. These parents’ natural concern is first for the immediate student body, which includes their own children. They are usually inclined to immerse themselves in current operations. As a result, they may inadvertently veer off in exactly the wrong direction.
Challenge your board development committee with designing an orientation process that ensures that this does not happen. While the calendar and exact format of your orientation may take a variety of forms, consider the following model for the scope and sequence of your annual new trustee orientation as adapted from Christian School Board Governance. 2
Step One: The Trustee Concept
Start with a three hour retreat session. After appropriate introductory activities, the following content areas are presented and discussed by one or more facilitators (preferably, but not necessarily, current members of your board).
1. Examine both mission statements, the school’s and the board’s, and explain them in their real life contexts.
2. Present and discuss the characteristics of the ideal trustee, focusing on at least the following ten elements.
The ideal trustee:
comes to board meetings well-prepared, and stays for all of the meeting
has respect for the confidentiality of board meetings
understands what it means to “speak with one voice” as a board
insists on seeing the long-range impact of short-range decisions
asks for data, both hard (enrollment, attrition, finances) and soft (who is in favour, who is not, who benefits, who loses)
requires evidence of success in “hard” and “soft” terms
persists in asking about the appropriate level of board activity
visits the school frequently
realizes the superintendent or principal does not report to individual board members, but only to the board as a group
having a child in the school, keeps that child’s needs in perspective, and carefully distinguishes between what is best for that child and what is best, long term, for the school
3. Examine the relationship of the board’s governance-level work relative to the superintendent or principal’s operations-level work, preferably in the following three categories.
The school trustee’s orientation should include:
a study of the school’s strategic plan for an overall vision for the school
a detailed review of the superintendent/principal’s evaluation system, with a particular attention to this system as a school improvement plan
a presentation and explanation of the board’s approach to setting the annual board agenda
Step Two: The Trustee Context
Unlike step one, your next longer session (or series of shorter sessions) should focus on the context in which these concepts will be applied at your school. It should include the following actions:
Examine the school’s constitution and by-laws for their practical application to the life of the board and the school
Understand how the school’s teachers design the curriculum to develop a biblical worldview; know the desired characteristics of your high school graduates
Study the board’s policy manual
Present an overview of your school’s finances so that each new trustee becomes comfortable with your one-page (monthly or quarterly) operations budget summary and the annual budget-building and budget-approval process
Provide a similar overview of the external affairs operation (development, marketing, parent/alumni/public relations, recruitment, enrolment management)
Examine board committee mandates and their due dates for bringing major proposals to the board
Understand the importance of the school’s membership in the Society of Christian Schools in British Columbia (SCSBC), the Federation of Independent School Associations in BC (FISA-BC), Christian Schools Canada (CSC) and Christian Schools International (CSI).
Step Three: Follow-up
New trustee orientation is not a one-time event, but a process. Quarterly, the board should spend 30-45 minute sessions as part of their board meeting to review and revisit basic concepts in the context of the current board agenda. As the new trustees’ participation in the life of the board increases, these reality checks and renewed grounding in the mission will serve as powerful midcourse corrections. These sessions also serve as leadership training, enabling trustees to chair committees as needed when they move to their second year on the board.
Invest in board training. You owe it to your children’s children.
Independent School Management – Christian School Board Governance p. 128
Christian School Board Governance – p. 128