School Board and Committees: Working in Unity or Undermining Each Other?
Working in Unity or Undermining Each Other?
by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
The psalmist says, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” (Psalm 133:1 NIV). The Message translation of the same verse puts it this way, “How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along.” However, during the past decade of working directly with Christian school boards and committees across the province, I’ve observed that it hasn’t always been a story of unity.
Have any of these sentiments ever surfaced at your board meeting or among your committee members?
“We did all this work at the committee level, then our school board ignored our recommendations and redid all the work we had spent so much time on.”
“If the school board isn’t going to listen to the advice of our committee, why have committees?”
“No wonder our board meetings are so long. We end up rehashing everything our committee discussed previously.”
“Our board seems to be heading in a different direction than the committee.”
An unintended consequence of a school’s current governance structure and practice may be that the school board and its appointed committees might unknowingly be working towards a different purpose or mission. As another school year begins, it’s worthwhile for board and committee members to ask themselves, “How can we ensure that our school board and committees work together in unity and not undermine each other’s work?”
I have observed the beauty and effectiveness of a school board and its committees productively working together. Sadly, I’ve witnessed moments of near mutiny between a school board and one of its committees. In almost all of these situations, issues could have been prevented had the board and its appointed committees been operating with the same core values and vision for the future of the school.
Those involved in Christian school leadership have often heard the analogy that likens a Christian school to a ship. Many of those who have served on a school board or one of its standing committees may have even parroted such phrases as these:
“Where is this ship headed?”
“Who’s steering? Can this ship have more than one captain?”
“Can we afford the crew that keeps this ship afloat?”
“Who should be in the crow’s nest? Who should be on the bridge watching for icebergs?”
“It seems like we are going through some stormy seas right now. What should the board/committee do?”
“We could face a mutiny if this is not addressed immediately.”
Much has been written about the importance of school boards spending a significant time in the crow’s nest directing the future vision of the school. Boards that have intentionally transitioned from a micro-management board to a strategic board understand the importance of working in partnership with the school’s administrative leadership team to develop and monitor strategic goals. Doing so has created new roles and responsibilities for standing committees of the board.
I’m pleased that the trend of the past decade within our SCSBC schools has been to decrease the number of board appointed committees. As Pelletier states, “Almost by default, boards that have large numbers of committees are destined to be more operational in their focus rather than strategic.”1 However, most school boards still conduct a significant amount of their board work through the use of committees, and not all school boards and their appointed committees operate with the same clarity of mission and sense of direction.
To ensure that your school board and its committees are working together with the same purpose, it would be wise to hold a special joint school board/ committee meeting early in September that all current board and committee members are expected to attend. At this (two hour) meeting be sure to:
- Express appreciation and gratitude to all those present for their willingness and commitment to serve on the school board and /or its various committees.
- Ensure that each person serving on the school board or one of its committee understands the expectation placed on them regarding such things as commitment to the school’s community standard policy, the absolute necessity to maintain confidentiality, the need to declare any conflict of interest they may experience and immediately remove themselves from such situations, and the requirement to speak publically with one voice.
- Review your school’s strategic plan and any specific strategic initiatives the school board has set for itself and its board appointed committees.
- Explain the task the board has assigned to each committee to help it achieve the school’s strategic plan. For example:
- by the November meeting the board would like the employee relations committee to present its plan for the implementation of the new SCSBC employee contracts
- by the December meeting the board would like the ad hoc building committee to present a preliminary proposal regarding the expansion of the middle school facilities
- by the January meeting the board would like the finance committee to review the school’s tuition assistance policy keeping in mind the following priorities
- by the February meeting the board would like the high school leadership team to report on the feasibility of adding on-line courses to the curriculum
- Allow for a question and answer period, using that time as a further opportunity to clarify the role and responsibility of the board and each committee.
It is important that each committee member understand the big picture priorities of the school board for the year ahead and comprehend how their committee work is designed to support the school board in making wise decisions that will help implement the school’s vision or strategic plan. Planning for such a joint board/committee meeting early in September will go a long way to achieve this goal.
Effective committees don’t just happen. They are carefully planned and constructed to have a balanced representation of members, a clearly defined mandate, work plan and timetable, a dedicated chair, and if possible, competent staff.
It is advisable to define the areas of accountability for each standing committee within the school’s governance structure. The very process of defining the committee’s role more clearly establishes what the board expects to have happen as a result of the committee’s efforts, and eliminates the possibility of have several committees claim the same territory as their own.
Typically committees don’t work well for many of the same reasons boards don’t work well:
- reasons such as a lack of long-term agendas
- reliance on poor or incomplete information
- failure to distinguish between board level and operational issues
Therefore committees can benefit from many of the same approaches that make board meetings more effective:
- an overview from the committee chair at the beginning of each meeting
- a strategic focus for discussions
- prioritized agendas
- an annual calendar of committee meetings and major decisions
- consent agendas
- evaluations of committee meetings2
“The overall success of a committee can often be directly linked to the effectiveness of the committee chair. You want a good leader of people and process, someone who feels confident in guiding committee members to accomplish the task in a timely manner. The role of committee chair requires extra work, time for communication with staff, a willingness to resolve conflicts among members and a commitment to keep the board chair informed at all times.”3 “Since the chair is ultimately responsible for planning the work of the committee, conducting meetings, maintaining records and appropriate information about their decisions, getting action taken and evaluating their results, it’s no wonder so much depends on their effectiveness.”4 Refer to the checklist at the end of this article to help you determine whether or not a potential candidate would be a good committee chair.
School boards and their committees need to be in regular communication with each other to ensure that both the board and committee are focusing on the school’s mission and vision. Committees ought not to be fertile ground for personal agendas or lengthy discussions that distract from the important work the school board expects and needs from its committees.
Yes, school board and committee members can work together in unity. The history of most SCSBC schools is a testament to that fact. My prayer is that your school board and its committees will have a productive year in advancing the cause of Christian education in your local community. God expects it of us and the future of our Christian schools depend on it.
Footnotes:1 Pelletier, Stephan, High Performing Committees: What makes them work? Trusteeship, May/June 2012 No. 3, Vol. 20 2 Chait, Richard, Holland, Thomas and Taylor, Barbara, Improving the Performance of Governing Boards. Oryx Press 1996 3 Andringa, Robert C., and Engstrom, Ted W., Nonprofit Board Answer Book, National Center for Nonprofit Boards, 2007 4 The Importance of Effective Committees www.ashe.org/about/chapters/pdfs/handbook/06_committees.pdf
Does your candidate…
- express a passion for Christian education?
- communicate effectively? This is one of the most important abilities for a committee chair to work with the committe, the governing body and related groups.
- have a record of active participation and interest in the school’s mission?
- have they served on the committee before and do their understand its mandate?
- have a willingness to listen?
- a good committee chair must be open-minded and encourage free expression of ideas among committee members.
- have the ability to inspire and the presence to command respect?
- have the characteristics of a servant leader?
- do they have the ability to control a group without dominating it with his or her own personal agenda?
- have at least a basic knowledge of parliamentary procedure?
- operate as a self-starter, without having to be pushed, prodded or reminded of commitments?
- have an understanding of the dynamics of group process and how a committee functions best?
- have knowledge of the subject area, which is the committee’s purview?
- have the ability to think and act in terms of the school’s overall goals and objectives?
- have the skill to create the right atmosphere for productive committee work?
- have the time and resources to carry out the assignment?
- good intentions are not enough.
- have a clear understanding of the position and the role of the committee and the need to work closely with the school board and principal/superintendent?