Board Chair and Principal: A Key Relationship
by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
Amid the myriad of relationships in our Christian school community, one of the most significant is between the board chair and the principal*. I am grateful for the many positive board chair/principal relationships that exist in our schools; everything must be done by both parties to protect and strengthen this key relationship. If a school is thriving, it is likely that one of the reasons is a healthy, productive relationship between the principal and the board chair. If a school is struggling, one contributing factor may be an unhealthy, counter-productive relationship between the board chair and the principal.
This unique relationship is one of mutual interdependence. It requires that the principal (leading the staff) and the board chair (leading the board and support community) be in regular communication, working closely together to ensure that all aspects of the school’s mission are upheld, and that school is actively and intentionally implementing its stated vision.
The principal is ultimately employed by, works for, and is accountable to the school board. If this were the only perspective from which the board viewed the principal and governed the school, it would appear that the board is the boss and the principal is merely expected to do whatever the board dictates. Flowing from this unbalanced perspective is the view that the board is all-knowing and the principal is simply a puppet of the board, reacting to whatever strings the board pulls.
Limiting the board-principal relationship to this perspective is woefully incomplete. As the key educational leader appointed by the board, the principal is expected to ultimately supervise all other employees of the school, ensure the proper implementation of the school’s educational program and spiritual direction, enact polices approved by the board, and operate within the parameters of the operational budget and development plan approved by the school board. No one person knows all the aspects of the school’s operation better than the principal. A school board would be foolish to exclude such valuable insight and advice from their discussion and decision-making process. Hence, in many ways the principal also guides and shapes the board in its governance responsibilities.
Every effort must be made by the board chair and the principal to be in mutual support of each other. Many practical things can be done to ensure this occurs. The board chair and principal ought to:
meet privately and regularly before each scheduled board meeting
plan upcoming board meeting agendas together, prioritizing issues that need to be discussed
clarify any significant questions/issues that may have arisen from the written reports/ minutes distributed prior to the board meeting
eliminate any surprises at board meetings, with neither party blind-siding the other by bringing up issues that have not been previously discussed between them
keep each other informed of any potential concerns that may be developing, whether it be of an educational, policy, performance, financial, parental, staff or society member concern
provide intentional encouragement, support, and accountability to each other
Regrettably, some school boards have adopted the practice of holding regular in-camera meetings or executive sessions of the board. Typically in these sessions, the principal and other members of the school’s senior leadership team, and other employees (such as the recording secretary) and guests are asked to step out of the board meeting, leaving the board to meet in isolation without what are often their most valuable advisors and resource people.
Consider this adaptation of the following scenario provided by Jim Brown (Removing the Mystery of In-Camera Meetings, Strive, August 2011) that may describe the past or current practice of your school board:
“What could be taking them so long?” groaned Daniel. As principal of the school he was forcing himself to squelch the fearful notion that the long in-camera meeting of the board was focused on him. There had been no hint of concern. Yet, the board met in-camera last time, and today, with no indication on the agenda, they called for another in-camera session without an explanation for either one. He and a capable recording secretary for the board had been asked to step out. Now an hour had passed. He could not help himself from thinking his future was in jeopardy. Silently the recording secretary wondered the same thing.” 1
Versions of this vignette have played out in some of our SCSBC schools in the past few years as school boards add regular in-camera sessions to their calendar. Regrettably, it appears that there is more pain than gain from this practice. Jim Brown observes that much confusion and concern arise from poorly executed in-camera sessions.
principals assume that something is wrong and are distracted or derailed by the uncertainty
the in-camera meeting is unfocused and consumes precious time rehashing past decisions, personal agendas or trivial interests
the conversation drifts to becoming a gripe session rather than a productive step toward board unity
little or no communication occurs after the in-camera session so the people excluded from the board meeting are left to speculate about the content, and they tend to imagine the worst
many people are unsure how to capture decisions from in-camera meetings in the minutes, so important decisions are sometimes unreported and ambiguous to future board members (or even current board members) 2
What Can Boards Do?
Rethink the use of in-camera meetings. If they are damaging trust and causing confusion, they are harming your organization, not helping it. The board’s job is to direct and protect; perhaps building and protecting a culture of both accountability and trust is in order.
Decide why and when in-camera sessions are to be held, and clarify this to everyone. (Typically the only time a school board ought to hold an in-camera meeting is immediately after a formal performance review of the principal.)
Designate one board member – usually the board chair – to brief the principal immediately following the in-camera meeting. Stem the speculation!
Realize that decisions made during in-camera sessions are formalized within regular board meetings and recorded in those minutes. If that regular board meeting does not happen immediately, any conclusion made in-camera should be captured in writing before the session is adjourned in order to avoid ambiguity or uncertainty when it is presented for the record. 3
Much research has gone into the personality and skillset that makes for the best board chair. Boards are encouraged to choose a board chair with strong facilitation skills. Boards are not well served by a chair that is too opinionated, driven by a personal agenda, too set in their ways, or so passionate about their personal viewpoint that they fail to draw out the opinions of others around the board table.
Board chairs need to refrain from jumping into the discussion too quickly. They need to continually remind their fellow board members that collectively they are building ideas that will guide the board in its governance responsibilities.
Increasingly the SCSBC has come to realize just how important the role of the board chair is to good governance. In addition, it understands how important the relationship between the board chair and principal is to the success of the school. Therefore, it is adding a one-day pre-conference seminar exclusively for board chairs and their principals to its annual Leadership Conference. An entire day, Friday, November 4, 2011, will be dedicated to focusing on strategies that will further equip board chairs for their unique leadership role and strengthen this key relationship in your school. We hope all board chairs and their principals will plan to attend this important seminar. As well, we encourage all board and committee members to join them for a full day of exceptionally beneficial training on Saturday, November 5, 2011.
* in large schools, this would be the superintendent
1 Jim Brown, Removing the Mystery of In-Camera Meetings, Strive, August 2011