Wednesday, 31 October 2018
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.