Thursday, 27 December 2018

New Year Reflections for School Trustees

School Trustees are amazing! You set the conditions that will affect the lives and future of thousands of people in your community and province.  You are literally building the future! 

So, what better time than the approach of a new year to reflect on your trustee role and to set personal development goals for the coming year? Here’s a little self-reflection survey to consider how you and your board will work towards these hallmarks of good governance.

Happy New Year – and thank you for the critically important work that you do!

1.    I can connect everything I do as a trustee back to improving student achievement.
2.    I focus on policy development and monitoring district/student success rather than administrative matters.
3.    I take into account the views and needs of the entire district rather than favouring specific groups.
4.    I express my views clearly during debate but support the majority decision once made.
5.    I come well prepared for board and committee meetings.
6.    I am knowledgeable about our district bylaws, policies and the school act.
7.    I express my opinions in a respectful manner. 
8.    I make decisions based on data and the input of others.
9.    I am an ambassador for our students and school district in the board room, in schools and in the community.
10.  I invest time in my own learning and development as trustee.


Monday, 12 November 2018

Ten Trustee Truths

Just about any school trustee will tell you there is a lot to learn about being a good board member. Yes, there’s the relentless mass of information trustees have to digest, but the hardest part is learning the “people” side of board work.  As the past Executive Director of a provincial school trustee association the majority of the calls for support I received from trustees involved issues related to roles, responsibilities, and interpersonal conflict. Board work is people work and it can be messy at times.  The good news is that most issues can be resolved through a willingness to work together, learn together, and by keeping what’s best for students foremost at all times.   
The following is a list (in no particular order) of some key truths about being a board member, gathered from trustees themselves, board governance literature, and my own observations. There is certainly more to being a successful trustee than this, but if you master these points you will be well on your way to great governance.
(1) Quoting the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”. One of the hardest lessons for new trustees is that once elected you have no individual power to achieve those things you ran for. You can only achieve your goals by collaborating with others on the board. Sometimes there will be instant recognition that your idea is brilliant – other times, not so much. Don’t take it personally. Democracy can be frustrating, but that’s what got you here.
(2) Once elected you are representing the whole community – not just those who voted for you. You may have run on a specific platform or were supported by a particular group, but once you are on the board you are collectively responsible for all the issues. This is the moving from “me-to-we” part of board work. You are responsible for it all – together.
(3) You are not the Superintendent (or the principal, or the bus scheduling supervisor). It is VERY tempting to want to get in there and fix things, particularly when you have received that phone call from an upset parent. Except for emergency issues that should immediately be brought to the Superintendent’s attention (and the Board Chair) individual trustees do not get involved in operational issues. Full stop. Trustees can only act collectively as a board and should not be jumping in to solve individual matters. When you get that call for help or that complaint in the supermarket line, hear the person out and then explain to them that they first need to speak to the relevant staff member – teacher, principal, superintendent. If these have been tried without resolution or if this is a recurring matter that may require a review of current policy, then perhaps it is a matter that should be brought to the board through the proper channels. It’s hard when people expect you to be their dragon slayer but that’s not your role.
(4) There will be difficult and unpopular decisions to make. Of course, you knew this coming into the job but nothing can really prepare you for the angst of having to make some of those decisions or the passion from the individuals whose cause is in your hands. A key part of your role is to make decisions that are in the best interests of the community and its students overall, which often means there will be winners and losers. Passionate presentations to the board and loud protests can place a lot of emotional pressure on trustees. However, the board must act as a dispassionate judge, making decisions based on the best evidence available at the time, existing policy and the advice of senior staff.  Once made, it is the decision of the board not individual trustees.
(5) Make sure board work is conducted using proper, gold standard procedures. This topic is so important it really deserves its own full article, but briefly, here are some "dos and don’ts" about board meetings:
  • Resist the temptation to discuss and decide matters outside of formal/public board or committee meetings. Meetings before the meeting, prearranged voting, and coordinated decision-making by email should be avoided. In-camera or closed meetings should be restricted to those very few matters where confidentiality must be maintained (such as legal, personnel and individual student matters). Arranging things ahead of time may make for a quick and smooth public meeting, but democracy demands transparency, even if it is messy. I love the tag line from the Washington Post newspaper, “Democracy dies in darkness”.
  • Run the meetings using Roberts Rules and your local meeting policies/bylaws. While this may feel overly stiff and formal, it will keep you out of all kinds of trouble. It makes it very clear to senior staff when a decision has been made, keeps speaking time equitable, and keeps everyone accountable.
  • Live by the "no surprises" rule. Don’t use the public board meeting to spring an embarrassing question or issue on senior staff or other trustees. This isn’t a contradiction to the point above about conducting your business in public. You or your Chair can certainly give the Superintendent or Secretary Treasurer a heads-up that you will be seeking information on a particular matter, and good agenda building should eliminate most surprises. Intentionally grandstanding or trying to embarrass staff or another trustee damages the reputation of the whole district and will hurt you in the long run. Yes, dig for information to make informed voting decisions. Yes, hold your Superintendent accountable. However, do so with decorum and respect.
  • Debate and dissent take place before the vote, not after. It is entirely appropriate for you to voice your opinions and possible disagreement about a proposed decision during the debate. That's why you are there. But when the voting is done, win or lose, the debate is over and you have an obligation as a member of the board to go along with the decision. Continuing to work against the decision overtly or behind the scenes is inappropriate and against the very nature of how school boards are legislated to work. If you strongly feel the board has made a bad decision there are formal ways to bring the matter forward again if new information might change the outcome. You may also want to clarify your position on the matter during the next election campaign. But apart from that, remember you are part of the “corporate board”, which is a single unified entity, and therefore you are obliged to at least accept the majority decision even if you may not like it.
(6) There are no successful boards and school districts that do not have a good working relationship with their Superintendent. Hiring a Superintendent is the most important decision a board will ever make. In doing so, you are entrusting the achievement of the district and its students to this one person. Firstly, the board is the employer. It is your job to provide the Superintendent with clear and achievable goals, and to monitor progress towards those goals. However, the Superintendent can’t achieve the goals in an atmosphere of mistrust or disrespect. You can do nothing without staff and you can do nothing well without a trusting and respectful relationship.  Communicate, communicate, communicate – and if you have any doubts, seek help from your provincial trustee association.
(7) If the majority of your agenda items deal with operational/administrative matters you are focusing on the wrong things. This is related to point #3 above but refers to the whole board rather than individual trustees. I am often surprised at how much time boards spend on administrative and operational agenda items rather than higher level matters of identifying strategic outcomes, monitoring progress, and developing guiding policies. It may not be as immediately gratifying as discussing a tangible operations matter but successful boards maintain that “mile high” perspective as much as possible.
(8) There will never be enough money. This isn’t a partisan statement, just a fact. The needs and opportunities in your district will always outstrip the funds available, so tough allocation decisions will always have to be made. It’s the nature of the beast. Yes, advocating for more provincial funding for your district is an important role for your board and your provincial association. But if you always use the lack of funding as a reason for not meeting your district’s goals then you are missing the point. In addition to advocating for more money you have a responsibility to appropriately allocate the limited funds available as best you can. It’s tough but that’s what good boards do.
(9) Being on a school board is a difficult, time demanding job. However, it is also a rewarding commitment that makes a difference in students’ lives and your community’s future. I strongly believe there is a direct relationship between good governance and student achievement. Being a good board member requires time and hard work, but when you drive home after those long and difficult meetings you can be assured that you are doing more than just moving along the business of the district. You are setting the conditions that will impact student success both today and for years to come. Every student in your district has a future and you have a hand in what that will be. And that’s awesome!
(10) Lastly, take heart, have courage, and know that you are not in this alone. You are a member of board - work together. Your board is a member of a community of trustees throughout the province and across the country. Tap into the resources and expertise of your provincial and national school boards associations - learn together. Being a school trustee is one of the greatest things you will ever do!



Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 10 of 10: When All Else Fails

The focus of the previous posts in this series has largely been on prevention – practices and procedures that boards can employ to reduce the likelihood of board disharmony. Unfortunately, despite the best of efforts, sometimes board members just can’t get along. This final post in the series explores what to do when all else fails.
First, some important caveats are required. The following is not legal advice. While there are some steps a school board can take to deal with individual trustees who refuse to work within the rules, these options vary from province to province. I strongly urge any board considering sanctioning a board member to seek advice from their provincial association and legal counsel before proceeding. Second, you need to give careful thought to the potential consequences of acting, or not acting, against an individual trustee. How will it hurt or enhance public trust in the board? Are you prepared for a protracted public and possibly legal battle? Will the sanctions actually make a difference or will you be engaging in a fight that the individual welcomes? Not easy questions to answer - and sometimes things get to the point that a board has no option but to act – but doing so should not be done hastily or in anger. 
The board needs to differentiate between behaviour that is just annoying versus actions that clearly compromise the board’s ability to fulfilits mandate. Differences in views, domineering behaviour, or surly attitudes may be frustrating, but may not by themselves justify limiting an elected trustee’s rights. On the other hand, individual trustees cannot do whatever they want. They have a fiduciary duty to act in good faith and maintain the integrity of the office and the board as a whole. Behaviours that clearly break the rules or threaten the responsibility of the board should not be ignored. Sharing confidential information, conflicts of interest, bullying and harassment, refusing to respect the will of the majority of the board, or acting outside of the authority of the corporate board need to be addressed early.  
That said, the following is a listof escalating steps a board may consider when faced with such behaviours. It is important to first try the softer approaches before considering more serious sanctions. 

Reason and Reasonability
The first step on the ladder is trying to change the behaviour through reason and understanding. Some basic aspects of natural justice need to be considered. Is the individual aware of the problem? Do they understand why the behaviour is an issue for the board? Have they been given an opportunity to express their reasons for their behaviour? Have they been given sufficient time to make corrections? Are there things that the board itself is doing that is making the situation worse? Are there accommodations the board could make to satisfy some of the trustee’s concerns? In all likelihood,you have already taken these steps, but it is important that they aretried and documented before considering sanctions. It is important to remember that as an elected representative, individual trustees have the right to strong opinions and to debate them vigorously. There is also no rule that trustees need to like each other. However, all board members have a shared and greater responsibility to support the corporate board in meeting its duty to the public and its responsibilities under the School Act.

Meeting Procedures
For some of the less egregious behaviours that may be annoying but don’t directly threaten the rights of the board or staff, a board should seek ways to contain the behaviour, particularly if it is occurring during board meetings. As discussed in Part Four of this series, boards that have established good meeting procedures reduce the chances that individuals can dominate or frustrate the meeting. School boards have the power by resolution to control the conduct of their meetings. This includesadopting a set of meeting rules – often based on Robert’s Rules of Order – and skilfulchairing. More relaxed procedures and informal board table discussions may feel more comfortable, but there is greater chance that meetings will stay orderly when procedures are well-establishedand consistently applied.  That said, it is also possible to further tighten meeting rules if necessary. With the approval of the board, more stringent rules can be adopted to limit how often all members may speak on any particular motion and for how long. The board Chair also has the ability and responsibility to remind board members about appropriate language and tone. 
A problem can arise, however, if an individual trustee refuses to abide by the meeting rules or follow the direction of the Chair. This is where you need to get advice on what your province’s School Act says on the matter. Most, if not all, provinces empower the Chair to eject a member of the public who is disrupting a meeting, but not necessarily an elected board member. However, if the meeting is getting out of hand the Chair can temporarily recess or adjourn the meeting. This, of course, is not a long-term solution but may be necessarily in the interest of safety and to give the board time to consider its options.

Censure and Exclusion
The school board has the authority to control the conduct of its meetings. If a member exhibits misconduct the board may, by majority vote, decide to censure a trustee. It is important to understand though that this is largely a declaration of disapproval by the other board members and has limited real consequences for the censored individual. That is not to suggest that censor has no value, but it also doesnot have the power that some boards may be looking for.
The decision to censure a fellow trustee should not be taken lightly or quickly. A board should determine that all other reasonable attempts to change the behaviour have been taken. The motion to censure is normally debated in a closed meeting of the board and if successful, may remain private or be reported out (but not debated) at a public meeting. The trustee in question should be given advanced notice of the motion to censure along with the reasons behind it, and be given an opportunity to speak to the motion.
In its mildest form,a censure is merely the board officially stating its disapproval of the individual’s conduct. This peer pressure may be sufficient to modify the behaviour. If the board decides to make the censure known publicly it ups the stakes for both the individual and the board. A public censure will undoubtedly be of interest to local media, which could help to curtail or embolden the behaviour, depending on the perception of who is right. Regardless, the board should ensure that the reasons and process for the censure are fair and can be defended. 
Depending on the circumstances a board may include limited exclusions for the censured trustee. For example, if the issue was a sharing of confidential information from a closed meeting the trustee could be excluded from future closed meetings on that matter for a period of time. A trustee may also be removed from related committees or other responsibilities previously assigned by the board. In most provinces, however, the offending trustee may not be excluded from public meetings while they are still an elected trustee. The provincial government can only remove a trustee from office for very limited reasons – and not gettingalong with others is not one of them. Once again, I want to stress that public censure and exclusion from some duties are serious actions and should not be considered without legal advice.

Conclusion
The intent of this ten-part series has been to explore the reasons why and remedies for school board disharmony. Happily, trustee in-fighting is infrequent and usually transitory. However, given the significant importance of the role of school trustee,it is incumbent on those who hold that public office to do so collaboratively. Much of this series has been devoted to the preventative measures that should be taken very early in a board’s term. These include a comprehensive orientation to the trustee role to understand its responsibilities and limits; the development and exercise of a robust code of conduct; clearly communicated and enforced procedures for conducting board business; and understanding of the roles of trustees and senior staff in achieving the board’s goals. The nurturing of the right attitudes and understanding of the political and personality side of board work is also essential. Finally, when all else fails, boards need to know the tools at their disposal to deal with disharmonyand have the wisdom to know when to use them.
It is my fundamental belief that school boards are critically important, not only for the essential task of governing the delivery of public educationbut also because school boards and the trustees who comprise them are fulfilling an essential democratic function. Along with their municipal/regional counterparts,they are the closest democratically elected representative of the citizens in their community – closer than any other level of government. Although often unrecognisedand under-appreciated, school trustees are what the name implies - individuals who have been entrusted by their fellow citizens to envision, shape and monitor the success of the public education system – a task important not just to the parents of school-aged children, but to the whole community and all society. What happens in the schools of today shapes the world of tomorrow.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 9 of 10: Board Self-Review

The old saying, “Too soon old. Too late smart”, is as applicable to boards as it is to life in general. We get busy. We focus on the multitude of tasks and responsibilities that life throws at us. The days go by with little time to check on how we are doing, to learn and to improve. Too soon old. Too late smart.
Boards have processes in place to provide ongoing monitoring of student achievement and district budgets, but unfortunately, this is not often done for the board’s own governance practices. While most boards are quite accepting of the need for regular performance reviews for their Superintendent but they are less inclined to do so for themselves, preferring to leave this up to the voters at the next election – the ultimate performance review. The problem is this doesn’t promote ongoing governance improvement. The answer is board self-review.
Self-review is a process where the board, often with the help of a facilitator, looks under the hood at its own governance practices to determine what is working well, what is not, and what changes need to be made. It is a process that increases accountability back to the community, demonstrates leadership, and instils a sense of continuous quality improvement, not just for the board but the entire district. It is the board saying, “If we expect others to assess their performance for improvement, then why not us?”
As stated above, the primary focus of board self-review is not to review district-wide student achievement or finances, but how the board goes about its governance business. This may include questions such as: Do we have effective processes in place to ensure we have sufficient information on which to make decisions? How well do our meetings run? How is our committee structure working? Are we living our own code of conduct? Are we getting along? How is our relationship with senior staff? Are we clear on our roles and goals? Are we adequately engaging with our community? How well do we communicate with each other, with staff, with our community? What do others think about our work? And most importantly – how can we do better?
These are critically important questions for all boards and there are several ways the answers can be determined. The process can range from a formal assessment using surveys and interviews to a less structured, facilitated dialogue among trustees. There are numerous tools and processes available for board self-review, but I highly recommend that a board make use of the services of its own provincial association or a skilled external facilitator who can guide the process. This is still a self-review – the external association or consultant is not passing judgement. They are there to guide the process and allow the entire board to participate equally.  Self-review does not need to be costly or time-consuming. It does need to be safe and confidential (although the board should consider some level of reporting out to its constituents to demonstrate how seriously it takes its governance responsibilities). Asking yourself and others how you are doing can be a challenging experience. There is no point doing a self-review if it is a superficial pat on the back exercise. On the other hand, it needs to be carefully managed so that it doesn’t leave identified issues without a path to resolution. Another critical point is that the review is about the board’s performance as a whole. It is not about “fixing” individuals.
In a future posting, I will discuss the topic of superintendent performance review but will say here that the two processes are (or should be) intricately connected. The success of any school district is highly dependent on the quality of the superintendent’s leadership – and the superintendent’s success is the board’s responsibility. How well the board is working with and supporting the superintendent must be part of the board’s own review.

The main theme of this series has been on intra-board relations, but the underlying premise is that good governance is a skill set that must be learned, nurtured and assessed. Although an essential component to good governance, it is not enough just to care. One must be willing to learn and be committed to improving. Board self-review is the path to both.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 8 of 10:Psychology 101 for Board Members


Board work is a group endeavour, reliant on individuals reaching agreement on the important matters before them. The challenge is that people see the world through their own unique lenses based on their experiences, motivations and personalities. Even people who may fundamentally agree on a matter will likely be unique in the way they reach decisions, process information, and interact with others. We all have a natural affinity for those who are like us – the “birds of a feather” phenomenon – and we find it more challenging to work with those who are not. But, the very nature and value of boards are that they bring together different perspectives to ensure broad representation and thinking. So, while there is an intentional benefit to the diversity of perspectives and personalities on a board there are also the related challenges of working through these differences. Developing an understanding of the diversity in perspective and personality is the first step.
There are several different models in psychology that attempt to describe different personality types. They are useful in helping us understand the diversity in personalities but they also run the risk of pigeonholing the complexity of human behaviour into discrete categories or “types”. We know, of course, that nobody is always one type or another, so we need to be very careful when discussing personality types to remember that they are only broad descriptions that describe behaviours that individuals may more frequently exhibit - but not always.  That said, let’s look at some of the different ways that people make up their minds and how they interact with others during that process. The following is a very high-level look at one of the more popular personality typologies, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). There are several other typologies that could apply but I like the MBTI because it is useful in describing important board-related functions of how individuals approach decision-making and how they interact with others – but remember, nobody fits purely into any one type.

Big Picture versus Detail: How we prefer to gather information

One way of thinking of this dimension is the forest and the trees analogy. Some people are really good at seeing the trees and need to focus on the details of a matter before reaching a decision. They tend to focus on practical, fact-oriented details and are less comfortable with theoretical discussions. Others aren’t as interested in the details and want to focus more on the big picture - the “idea”. The detail people will argue that you need to understand the parts before approving the whole. Big picture people prefer not to get immersed in the details. Both perspectives are valuable, but the dialogue between the two can be frustrating.  It takes real effort to step back from your personal preference for how much detail you want or don’t want and to find the right balance. This is also tricky for senior staff who generally have the responsibility for providing the board with sufficient information for making an informed decision. Too much detail may overwhelm the process - not enough will result in complaints.  Getting this balance right is a moving target but the first step is understanding that different board members have different needs in this area. The second step is to increase tolerance for these differences. 

External versus Internal: How we process our thoughts

This can be one of the more noticeable and challenging differences in board work. Briefly put, some people are more outgoing, more comfortable speaking their minds and actually need to verbalise their thinking to help them reach a decision.  Others are more internally focused. They prefer to do their processing in their heads before expressing their opinions. They tend to speak less often on the board and when they are ready may find that the discussion has moved along faster than they like.  The more outgoing members will naturally take up more airtime and may incorrectly assume that those who are not speaking either don’t “get it” or don’t have an opinion. The internal thinkers may feel that the others are dominating the discussion and have already made up their minds. But this is not necessarily the case as sometimes external thinkers need to float a number of trial balloons before landing somewhere.  Put another way, some people think before speaking while others speak while thinking. This, of course, is not fully true of all people, but we do tend to get frustrated with those who either share their thinking too much or not enough. Another challenge with this dimension is that in the general population the internal processors are significantly outnumbered.
One of the ways to accommodate these differences is through good chairing and meeting procedures. This can help to level the airtime playing field preventing some from dominating while leaving space for others to add to the debate when they are ready. If you are one of the external processors try to jot down some of your thoughts before you get the floor to clarify your thinking. Try to limit how often and how long you speak and don’t assume that those who are not speaking have nothing to add. If you are one of the internal processors don’t assume that what you are hearing is the other person’s final position, but don’t hold back too long before you express your own opinions or you may find a consensus has already formed.

Logic versus Feelings: What counts more when deciding

Another dimension that can influence how we make decisions is whether we focus more on logic or feelings when making up our minds. Of course, we all rely on both logic and feelings to guide our decision-making, but people tend to favour one over the other. For example, if the information presented to the board logically supports changing the enrollment area of a school some trustees may feel that the negative impact it may have on some students should take priority. Both positions have good points but they will be prioritised differently due to our logic or feelings-based lenses. One personality type will focus more on the facts and bottom line. The other will focus more on how people will be affected by the change and may want to avoid the potential conflict. One type will think the other is being illogical. The feelings-based type will feel the other is being cold-hearted. These are difficult debates to resolve because both types see the same information in different ways. As frustrating as that may be at times, this diversity can improve a board’s decision-making by ensuring that all perspectives are considered. Ultimately one perspective must prevail when the matter comes to a vote but at least both sides must be openly and fairly considered. Imagine if the entire board focused mostly on logic or mostly on feelings. Decisions might come more quickly and with less dissent but they may not necessarily be the best ones in the long run.
The way to capitalise on this diversity is to first be aware of it. If you listen carefully to individuals as they debate a matter you will hear clues as to which lens is taking priority. As has been mentioned before, good meeting processes and chairing will ensure that all perspectives are heard and hopefully considered. Acknowledging the other person’s perspective demonstrates that it has been heard. Ignoring or not valuing the other perspective will lead to hard feelings and endanger the quality of future decisions.

Action versus Flexibility: How we move on

This dimension refers to a person’s eagerness – or hesitancy – to actually make and enact a decision. For some people making the decision, ticking it off the agenda, and moving on to the next item brings a sense of accomplishment, and closure - “We’ve received the information, we’ve heard everyone’s opinion, let’s vote and move on.”  For others, there is discomfort with the rigidity of deciding and moving on - “Maybe we should get more information, or consider more options before deciding.”  These individuals may feel that the board is rushing and that more consideration is needed, while others may feel that they can’t make up their minds or are uncomfortable taking a stance.
These different preferences for action can cause tension among board members and create feelings of not being understood. This is a more challenging dimension to manage through meeting processes alone. For some individuals, it doesn’t matter how much information they have been provided or whether they had ample time to express their opinions. They just don’t like to have to finally decide. For others, they may have made their mind up quickly and will get frustrated with what they feel is an endless debate. These are the board members who will call for the question to be put.
As with the previously discussed dimensions, awareness of the differences in preferences is the first step, along with tolerance for those differences. Ensuring that adequate information is available to guide the debate (and this will not be the same for everyone), and making sure that everyone has had an opportunity to speak can help to minimise the impact of these differences.  Also, during the board’s annual self-review (more on this in the next posting) there should be a review of the board’s decision-making processes, along with an honest sharing of how individuals feel about them.

The Richness of Types


The above overview has outlined just four personality dimensions that may influence board work and intra-board relations. When you consider the variety of ways that these preferences can be mixed within each individual it can become very complex – and these certainly are not the only personality differences that board members bring to the table. This underscores the folly - and danger - of trying to “type” each member or always treating them in some particular fashion. Personalities are multi-faceted and variable. A good analogy is "handedness" – whether you are more comfortable using your right or left hand.  Under normal circumstances, we could use either hand to complete a task but we are more competent and comfortable using one over the other.  Our personality dimensions are similar.  It’s not that we can’t be logical, or focus on detail – it’s just that we are naturally more comfortable exercising one aspect over the other.  While this makes intra-board relations challenging the keys to maximising the potential of these differences are (1) accepting that these type preferences do exist; (2) understanding nobody always follows all of their type preferences all of the time; and (3) believing that these differences actually can result in stronger boards and better decision-making with the appropriate procedures in place. The creators of the Myers-Briggs personality typology aptly used the phrase “gifts differing”, which is what they are and exactly why boards have multiple members.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 7 of 10: Is it Political?

The theme of this series of blog posts is intra-board relationships and why some trustees don’t get along with each other. While the causes of board disharmony outlined in my earlier posts are perhaps more common, politics – or at least our common misconception of the term – can also be a factor that causes disruption in a board’s work. Unfortunately, the word politics often has a negative connotation and many school trustees do not like to think of themselves as politicians. But the truth is that is exactly what they are and that’s not a bad thing.

The word politics comes from the Greek “politikos”, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens”. Put another way, it is the exercise of governance on behalf of the people. And that is precisely what school trustees do. They exercise governance over a specific and critically important public good – education. They are selected by the citizens of their communities to represent the community’s collective interests related to the education of its future citizens. In this framework, being a politician is the sine qua non of being a school trustee. It defines the trustee as a democratically elected representative of the people, with responsibilities to determine the education aspirations of the community and to be guided accordingly.

When school trustees say they are not political they usually mean that they are not representing any particular political party in their role as school trustee.  During elections, most do not run on slates representing official political parties. Once elected, most act and vote independently rather than along any party lines.  We are quite used to party affiliation at the provincial and federal levels of government because they are designed to operate on a parliamentary model consisting of more than one political party, each vying to gain the majority of elected members through which to exert its platform on how the province or country should be run. One party is in power and the other has a role to act as a check and balance to that power by opposing the policies proposed by the party holding the majority. School board governance, on the other hand, is not intended to operate under the parliamentary model. School boards work within the “corporate governance” model where the board “as a whole” is considered to be a single entity. The board only speaks as a single entity and members of the board only speak on behalf of the board when asked to do so. Individually they have no official voice or power in the outside world. There is a fiduciary duty to the good of the whole over those of specific interest groups or political parties. In the corporate governance model, boards need to bring together the perspectives of all groups to make decisions in the best interests of the whole community. Unfortunately, some trustees - especially when first elected - are not familiar with the corporate governance model of governance, or that it is a requirement built into legislation. Their interests may be more aligned with those of some specific group and they may spend much of their time pursuing those interests rather than working collaboratively to gain consensus for the good of the whole. This can lead to “for us or against us” sides, creating tension and disharmony.

Another issue for some boards is that advocacy (seeking to influence the decisions of another group towards some preferred cause) gets confused with party politics. It is fair to say that most school trustees would see advocacy on behalf of students as one of their major roles. For Canadian school trustees, this generally means trying to influence the provincial government to provide more funding, greater autonomy, or some other action that will benefit students. As the provincial government controls almost all of the funding to public schools and sets the rules under which school districts must operate, advocacy is a necessary and legitimate role for school boards. Problems can arise, however, when trustees become blatantly partisan in their advocacy efforts. The goal shifts from trying to influence the current government (of whatever political stripe) to efforts to discredit and replace the current party in power. When this type of rhetoric finds its way into board business and debate it can set individual trustees against each other and work against the intended collaborative nature of the corporate governance board.  To repeat, school boards have a legitimate role in advocating for the resources they need to support their students, but when advocacy turns into partisan sniping the best interests of students can be compromised.

Are school trustees politicians? Yes - they are publicly elected to represent the people of their community. Should school trustees be advocates? Absolutely yes - they have a responsibility to ensure adequate resources for their students from their provincial government. Should political party partisanship be part of a school board’s work? Not in this writer’s opinion.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 6 of 10: Who Does What


One of the more frequent causes of boardroom trouble is a lack of clarity on the difference in the roles of the board, the chairperson, senior staff, and individual trustees. Each of these entities has a specific set of responsibilities, defined by the School Act and other legislation, the board’s own bylaws and policies, and the superintendent’s contract. These tend to be high-level role descriptions leaving lots of room for variation and interpretation. This places a high level of responsibility on boards to ensure that governance roles and responsibilities are properly defined, clearly communicated, and visible in practice. When this is not the case lines become blurred and problems emerge.

A challenging for some trustees is understanding and accepting the concept of the corporate board. Simply put, this means that the board as a whole is considered to be a single legal entity. Although it is made up of individual trustees who bring their perspectives to the decision-making process, once a decision is made by majority vote it is the decision of the whole board, not just those members who voted in favour. Those who did not vote in favour are expected to respect the decision and not undermine its implementation. It is sometimes a hard lesson for trustees who campaigned on promises to bring about certain changes to find out that as individuals they have no authority to make changes unless the majority of the board agrees, and no authority to frustrate the progress of decisions once they are made. Boards do not work under the parliamentary model of the provincial and federal governments where there is an opposition party. A related point is that once elected, trustees do not just represent the interests of any special interest group that may have supported them during the campaign, whether it be a specific parent group or union. As stated in an earlier post, once elected they represent the whole community – those who voted for them, those who did not, and those who didn’t vote at all.

The limited authority of the individual trustee extends outside of the boardroom as well. Election to the board does not give an individual trustee any authority to act as or direct staff. The general public and even some staff members do not understand this either. A parent may call an individual trustee at home to ask them to step in and solve some issue with their child at the school or classroom level, but the trustee has no authority to do so. It’s tempting but it is a recipe for trouble on many levels. Boards need to have clear expectations and early training for members to clarify these roles and to provide guidance in how to appropriately respond to requests for intervention from parents, staff and the public.

Another frequent area of role confusion is between the board and senior staff. On the surface, it seems relatively straight forward. The board sets the educational direction for the district, develops policies that establish parameters within which the goals are to be achieved, and monitors progress towards those goals. Senior staff, under the direction of the Superintendent/CEO, plan and implement activities to achieve the board’s goals, and to provide accurate information to help the board assess progress. This is a simplification of the respective roles, but as the oft-cited analogy says, the board determines where the train should go and staff run the trains. The trouble starts when trustees start playing with the trains. Avoiding this can be hard to do. Sometimes it is a matter of necessity. Some districts, particularly small ones, may not have the senior staff resources to manage all of the operational aspects of running the district. In these cases, trustees may need to be more involved in operational level committee work. More frequently, though, boards can become too hands-on because they like it. Operational decision-making is more tangible than policy work. You are defining and solving real day-to-day issues. It makes you feel like you have achieved something and you can more immediately see the results of your efforts. Sometimes this involvement in operational decision-making happens intentionally, but more often it is a slow creep. A quick review of board agendas can give you a sense of how much time the board is spending on matters outside of its policy setting and monitoring role. When there is a lack of clarity between the board and senior staff frustration and distrust can grow on both sides. I know of no successful board that does not have a good working relationship with its superintendent. Superintendents, however, are loath to raise these concerns with their boards, their employer. Sorting these roles out is difficult because they are not always black and white, but it is a key component during board/superintendent orientation and review processes.

In part four of this series, I touched on the critical role of the Board Chair in managing meeting processes and behaviour. The Chair not only runs board meetings but usually represents the board as a whole when communicating with media and the superintendent. Once again, it is important for boards to have processes in place so that all members are clear on who speaks for the board, which is almost always the Chair. This puts significant pressure on the Chair to ensure that when she does speak to the media or provides direction to the superintendent she is doing so based on board policies, previous decisions, and her best knowledge of the board’s perspectives. She is not expressing her own opinions or making independent decisions outside of those parameters, because like other trustees, as an individual she has no authority except that which is given her by the board. Being clear on and executing the role of the Chair is a challenging exercise in leadership.

I can't emphasise enough the importance of role clarity in building effective boards. When trustees, staff, parents and the general public have a clear understanding of both the authority and the limitations of the board there is a much greater chance that the board will fulfil its role in a productive and respectful manner.


Sunday, 16 September 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 5 of 10: Goal Clarity


The two previous posts focused on the value of establishing a code of conduct and a set of meeting procedures early in the board’s term. Achieving clarity on the board’s goals for the coming term is also an important component to decrease the likelihood of board disharmony. Most boards go through a strategic planning exercise at the beginning of the term. However, similar to a code of conduct, not all boards use the strategic plan as a living document to guide decision-making throughout the term. Strategic planning rightfully establishes the board’s long-term goals for the district which are then typically assigned to the superintendent to develop implementation plans for board approval.
Reaching agreement on the big goals for the coming term is not always easy, particularly if there are contentious issues related to school closures, reconfiguration and funding – and contentious issues are more the norm lately - but once hammered out and approved by board vote the strategic plan serves as an agreement to work towards those ends. There may well be disagreement on how to achieve the goals as staff bring back the operational and funding realities - and plans may need to be changed given those realities - but the initial agreement by vote that this is where we want to go should serve as a compass to guide future decisions.  If there is not at least general agreement on what you want to achieve your board can spend a lot of unproductive time in the future months and years of the term.
It would be naive to suggest that a majority vote to approve the strategic plan means that all board members are in agreement. But one of the main tenants of the corporate board model under which school boards operate is that once a motion is approved, those who were in the minority agree to go along with the decision. This doesn’t necessarily mean the minority will be cheerleaders for the direction but ongoing dissension and undermining is not allowed.  I will write more on this in a future post but there is a misunderstanding in the minds of some trustees about the differences between a corporate board model and the parliamentary system that has a party charged with the responsibility of providing an ongoing check and balance role to the governing party. In severe cases, trustees who continually undermine the work of the board can, depending on provincial and board rules, be censored and possibly excluded from certain board activities (more on this later).

A strategic plan is not set in stone and does not guarantee board harmony. But the lack of initial agreement on goals opens the door to ongoing dissension. It also increases the likelihood of boards spending too much time on non-strategic matters.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 4 of 10: Good Processes Build Better Boards

School boards are intentionally comprised of several elected trustees in order to bring a variety of community voices to the board table. It is this diversity of perspective that enriches decision-making and community representation. This, of course, is the critical attribute of publicly elected school boards, and is also what makes board work hard. It means that ideas will be contested, opinions will be defended, and disagreements may be strong. This human and sometimes messy part of board work is essential, but that doesn’t mean that governance has to mired in poor behaviour or chaotic “debate’. 

The most successful boards are able to manage their work by establishing and reinforcing a set of good governance practices.  Unfortunately, some boards are reluctant to do so.  Sometimes there is a tendency, particularly with boards from smaller communities or those that have enjoyed long-term stability, to be somewhat casual with board processes such as the chairing of meetings, building agendas, and trustee communications. I have observed some board meetings that more closely resemble informal discussions, with minimal management, loose agendas and few formal motions.  On the surface this may feel comfortable but this lack of process leaves a board more vulnerable to dysfunction, projects an image that diminishes the importance of the board’s work in the eye of the public and can leave senior staff unclear on board direction.

I am not suggestion that meetings need to be run stiffly to be effective. They can be professional and comfortable at the same time.  It starts with an inclusive and transparent process for agenda building and distribution.  All trustees should have the ability to bring matters of concern to the board for discussion. But except for emergent issues, this needs to be done in advance so that everyone knows what is coming and senior staff, in particular, have an opportunity to have the appropriate information at hand to answer questions to help guide the board’s decision-making.  It also limits the ability of those who may wish to ambush other members or senior staff.  The principle here is no surprises. But if there is little opportunity for input on the agenda or one that is only loosely followed, then meetings can turn into free-for-alls and provide an open platform for those who want to grandstand or undermine.

The second critical factor is good meeting chairing. This topic requires much more space than available here and perhaps will be the subject of a future article. Briefly, however, the Chair is like the conductor of the orchestra. She sets the tone and ensures order. There are two key attributes to good chairing: Having a working knowledge of the rules and processes of running a meeting (the science of chairing), and; having a style that is professional, equitable and comfortable in nature (the art of chairing). The Chair also leads by example. I have seen Chairs who misuse their role by dominating the discussion, editorialising after others have spoken, and running the board as though they own it.  Although Chairs are normally the spokesperson for the board with the public and senior staff, they are there to serve the board, not to be its monarch. To be fair, chairing meetings is challenging work.  All the more reason to have a set of procedures, such as Robert’s Rules, upon which to rely. This doesn’t mean the Chair has to be a trained parliamentarian. The vast majority of meeting procedure are covered by just a handful of Robert’s Rules (or other standardised meeting rules) supported by your own board’s meeting policies. Meetings need to be run using a predictable set of procedures that everyone knows and can rely on.

Upcoming posts in this series will explore other processes to help your board become and remain a high functioning governance body.