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Posted on Feb 1, 2011

Key Governance Principles that Define Exceptional School Boards

How Does Your Board Measure Up?

by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director ◊

If your school board were issued a report card on its governance performance of the past six months, what marks would it receive? Would it receive an A for more than attendance? A C+ for compliance? An F for maintaining confidentiality? A B+ for fundraising? Would it receive a “needs improvement” comment encouraging it to become more strategic and visionary and less managerial? And would it receive a “less than satisfactory” in the category of being responsive to changing demographics and educational trends?

School governance is not an either/or dilemma. It’s a both/and situation — compliance and leadership, oversight and fundraising, challenge and support. Christian school boards must focus on advancing their school’s mission through active board leadership.

A school board may meet every legal requirement, adhere to proper procedures, and still be ineffective if it is not engaged in setting strategic direction and supporting the school and its administrative team to achieve the school’s mission. If a school board neglects the full range of its responsibilities, it may preclude the Christian school from reaching its potential.

To help boards operate at the best and highest use of their collective ability, BoardSource, an authority on governance, developed The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards. Drawing on observations, academic knowledge, and proven practices, they identified the common traits and actions of boards that made discernible differences to their organizations.

To highlight these differences, they distinguished between “responsible” boards and “exceptional” boards. A responsible board is capable and dutiful in carrying out its responsibilities. It understands its fiduciary obligations, and adds value to the organization by approving strategic plans and budgets, regularly reviewing financial statements, evaluating the principal / superintendent, and participating in fundraising. An exceptional board operates on a higher level that is both “more” and “different.” Undoubtedly, its members give more — of their time, talent, and treasure. But, they also give differently — their time may be spent more wisely, their skills and social networks better leveraged, and their treasure more strategically deployed. Exceptional boards measure organizational impact and evaluate their own performance, discuss and debate issues and open doors and make connections.

The difference between responsible and exceptional boards lies in thoughtfulness and intentionality, action and engagement, knowledge and communication.

The following twelve principles1 offer principals and superintendents a description of an empowered school board that is a strategic asset to be leveraged. They provide board members with a vision of what is possible and a way to add lasting value

to the Christian school they lead.

CONSTRUCTIVE PARTNERSHIP: Exceptional boards govern in constructive partnership with the principal / superintendent, recognizing that the effectiveness of the board and principal/ superintendent are interdependent. They build this partnership through trust, candor, respect, and honest communication.

MISSION DRIVEN: Exceptional boards shape and uphold the mission, articulate a compelling vision, and ensure the congruence between decisions and core values. They treat questions of mission, vision, and core values not as exercises to be done once, but as statements of crucial importance to be drilled down and folded into deliberations.

STRATEGIC THINKING: Exceptional boards allocate time to what matters most and continuously engage in strategic thinking to hone the school’s direction. They not only align agendas and goals with strategic priorities, but also use them for assessing the chief executive, driving meeting agendas, and shaping board recruitment.

CULTURE OF ENQUIRY: Exceptional boards institutionalize a culture of enquiry, mutual respect, and constructive debate that leads to sound and shared decision making. They seek more information, question assumptions, and challenge conclusions so that they may advocate for solutions based on analysis.

INDEPENDENT-MINDEDNESS: Exceptional boards are independent-minded. They apply rigorous conflict-of-interest procedures, and their board members put the interests of the school above all else when making decisions. They do not allow their votes to be unduly influenced by loyalty to the chief executive or by seniority, position, or reputation of fellow board members, staff, or donors.

ETHOS OF TRANSPARENCY: Exceptional boards promote an ethos of transparency by ensuring that donors, stakeholders, and interested members of the public have access to appropriate and accurate information regarding finances, operations, and results. They also extend transparency internally, ensuring that every board member has equal access to relevant materials when making decisions.

COMPLIANCE WITH INTEGRITY: Exceptional boards promote strong ethical values and disciplined compliance by establishing appropriate mechanisms for active oversight. They use these mechanisms, such as independent audits, to ensure accountability and sufficient controls; to deepen their understanding of the school; and to reduce the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse.

SUSTAINING RESOURCES: Exceptional boards link bold visions and ambitious plans to financial support, expertise, and networks of influence. Linking budgeting to strategic planning, they approve activities that can be realistically financed with existing or attainable resources, while ensuring that the school has the infrastructure and internal capacity it needs.

RESULTS-ORIENTATED: Exceptional boards are results-orientated. They measure the school’s progress towards mission and evaluate the performance of major programs and services. They gauge efficiency, effectiveness, and impact, while simultaneously assessing the quality of service delivery, integrating benchmarks against peers, and calculating return on investment.

INTENTIONAL BOARD PRACTICES: Exceptional boards purposefully structure themselves to fulfill essential governance duties and to support organizational priorities. Making governance intentional, not incidental, exceptional boards invest in structures and practices that can be thoughtfully adapted to changing circumstances.

CONTINUOUS LEARNING: Exceptional boards embrace the qualities of a continuous learning organization, evaluating their own performance and assessing the value they add to the school. They embed learning opportunities into routine governance work and in activities outside of the boardroom.

REVITALIZATION: Exceptional boards energize themselves through planned turnover, thoughtful recruitment, and inclusiveness. They see the correlation between mission, strategy, and board composition, and they understand the importance of fresh perspectives and the risks of closed groups. They revitalize themselves through diversity of experience and through continuous recruitment.

This list of twelve guiding principles is not meant to be exhaustive or complete. However, it does offer boards a benchmark against which they can measure themselves and ask if they are becoming an “exceptional” board. Our Christian schools deserve nothing less!

1 Excerpted with permission from The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards, a publication of BoardSource, formerly the National Center for Nonprofit Boards.  For more information about BoardSource, call 800-883-6262 or go to BoardSource © [2011].

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