Boards Behaving Badly

I recently had the privilege of hearing Bill McGee discuss the importance of a positive relationship between the school leader and the school’s board of trustees. Bill has graciously allowed me to paste his article entitled “Boards Behaving Badly.” I’m confident it will benefit you and your role with your Board of Trustees


If one were to conduct a nation-wide poll of non-public school leaders asking them to identify the greatest threat to the health, stability, and future of their schools, undoubtedly there would be a myriad of opinions.

Negative influences such as a toxic youth culture, dysfunctional families, unreasonable parent demands, rising tuition rates, a shortage of qualified teachers, and the emergence of charter schools and home-schooling would certainly make the top ten list of concerns for most non-public school administrators. Indeed, these trends and issues have been the subjects of articles published in leading educational journals for years.

Yet, as difficult and perplexing as these challenges are, they are not the greatest menace to our non-public schools. No, the most serious threat to our schools may be their own governing boards. A lack of knowledge, understanding, and application of sound governing principles, what the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) calls “Principles of Good Practice”, poses the greatest danger to the health and stability of non-public schools. When boards behave badly, when they are guilty of unethical practices, when personal agendas emerge, and when shortsighted decision-making is the norm, a trust is broken and the entire school community suffers. It is time for regional accrediting associations and professional membership organizations to do more than publish another article urging school boards to invest in their own development. Serious threats call for serious measures.

The Non-public school refers to any not-for-profit private, parochial, or independent school. The non-public school board, whether self-perpetuating, elected by parents, appointed by a religious body, or some combination thereof, is a peculiar institution in American society. The qualifications for membership are not always stringent and the process of selection is often casual. To be elected or appointed to a school board depends less on personal merit and more on familiarity or popularity. Few boards take the time and make the effort to really investigate potential members. Fewer boards go to the trouble of profiling its own membership to identify its deficiencies, then inviting those individuals onto the board whose talents and affiliations can best meet the needs of the school. Most often, nominating committees propose individuals whom they know well and with whom they enjoy a personal or professional relationship. This casual approach to board selection usually results in the selection of well-intentioned individuals who may very well support the school and its mission. But, it may also result in the selection of individuals who are ill equipped to function as an effective trustee, or who bring wrong assumptions about their roles and responsibilities, or, worse yet, who bring their personal agendas onto the board.

What are the consequences of such a casual, non-strategic approach to board selection? Ask any head of school or chairman of the board who has had to confront a board member for crossing the governance—management boundary. Ask any head of school who has been in the uncomfortable position of considering a “special request” from a trustee who determines his or her future. Ask any of the hundreds of school leaders who have been dismissed without cause because of the political or economic pressure placed on their boards from disgruntled parents, dissatisfied teachers, or disillusioned donors or alumni. Considering the short tenure of non-public school heads and the fact that the majority of all heads are fired or forced to resign, there must be a major flaw in how our non-public schools are being governed.

How can a school sustain meaningful change when it is frequently changing the very people responsible for implementing that change? How can a school maintain its integrity when board members insert themselves into school operations without the invitation of management? How can a school remain focused on its mission when the decision-making process has been politicized? Non-public school boards should heed the admonition of business expert and consultant, Peter Drucker who wrote “Over the door of the non-profit board room there should be an inscription in big letters that says: Membership on this board is not power, it is responsibility.”

How do we prevent boards from abusing their power and contributing to the instability of our schools? How do we moderate the “fruit basket turnover” of leadership in our schools? Clearly, the answer lies within the board itself. Boards must be willing to invest in their own development. Since the majority of board members join a non-public school board with little or no experience, it is imperative that they receive the proper orientation and on-going training necessary for them to be effective in their roles as governors. Yet, too many non-public school boards have given only token attention to this important function.

Here’s an idea. Virtually every accredited school requires that its instructional personnel possess the proper credentials (degree, certification, license, etc.) required to do their job. Additionally, almost all schools require teachers and administrators to pursue a professional growth plan that mandates the completion of a certain amount of continuing education in order to retain their credentials. If we expect our professional educators to meet minimum standards, then why not require some standard of training for those individuals who determine the mission, the philosophy,and the policies which define our schools, and who are ultimately accountable for its direction and viability?

If we believe that purposeful selection and on-going development of trustees are the best tools available in producing an effective, stable governing board, then how do we ensure that boards take this responsibility seriously? How do we require volunteers to earn the right to govern our schools rather than to assume their right to govern? I believe the answer is for our regional and national accrediting and professional associations to mandate board orientation and training as a pre-requisite for accreditation and membership. I believe it will take the authority of such organizations to compel school boards to address this deficiency in their model of governance. Heads of schools, educational consultants, and professional organizations can write articles ad nausea extolling the virtues of board development. But, we all know what happens when our schools offer a parenting workshop; the very parents who would benefit most don’t bother to attend. Similarly, the very school boards that would benefit most from board training do not show up either. Unless it is mandated, many boards will not make the orientation and training of its membership a priority.

Here is where accrediting associations can deliver a valuable service to its membership. Accreditation is a credential that most non-public schools deem essential. Accreditation is designed to affirm that schools are following sound principles of governance and management. It legitimizes a school’s curriculum and it affirms that a school is fiscally sound and operates under prudent management. Most importantly, the accreditation process requires a school to periodically undergo a critical self-analysis leading to a plan of self-improvement. During the “self-study” phase of accreditation, weaknesses and deficiencies are identified and addressed.

Wouldn’t it be reasonable then, to expect the non-public board to conduct a similar self-assessment? Why not require a candidate school to provide documentation that its governing board is actively engaged in its own development? Schools already provide curriculum guides, standardized test scores, policy handbooks, and many other forms of documentation to peer review team members, so providing evidence of on-going board training and development is not unreasonable. Shouldn’t the one body of people that has the most influence on the success or failure of a school be required to develop and implement sound governing principles in order to receive the endorsement of an accrediting association?

Consider this proposition.

1. Require accredited schools to submit evidence that all new trustees attended an orientation that includes education in the “Principles of Good Practice for Governing Boards.”

2. Require school boards to adopt a policy that no trustee may be officially seated or vote on any matter until they attend the orientation session.

3. Increase the number and expand the locations of board development workshops offered to member schools.

4. Develop a list of educational consultants and current and retired non-public school administrators who are available to conduct on-site governance workshops to member schools.

5. As a part of the documentation needed for accreditation, require boards to submit a copy of their official minutes that contain the date(s) on which board development was conducted and the names of the trustees who attended the training session.

6. Establish a special accreditation status or endorsement that recognizes schools for following sound governing principles.

7. Sanction schools which fail to take seriously their responsibility to follow sound principles and which refuse to invest in their own board development by withholding accreditation or placing the school on probationary status.

8. Establish a grievance procedure by which school personnel, board members, or parents can request a review of suspected board misconduct.

Accrediting associations and professional membership organizations serve a public good. They provide parents, teachers, and administrators with a critical piece of information they need in the school selection process. By and large, the public trusts the accreditation credential.

Shouldn’t there be some assurance that accredited schools are not only well managed, but also well governed? Wouldn’t mandatory training for all current and prospective trustees be a step toward preventing boards from behaving badly? I challenge our accrediting associations and professional membership organizations to seriously consider this proposal.
Bill McGee
Hill Country Christian School of Austin