When board governance goes wrong, it’s common to hear school heads reflect, “I did not get much input and feedback from my board, but the little I received was positive. And then at the end of the school year, they said they wanted to move in a different direction.”
Sometimes, I hear the other side from a board member: “He was a nice guy who loved the Lord, but an ineffective leader,” or, “We totally lost trust in him when ….”
The Flourishing Schools Framework starts with board governance because ultimate authority and final decision making sits with the board. Effective board governance can significantly strengthen a school’s ability to deliver strong student outcomes over time; failed board governance goes in the opposite direction, usually resulting in weaker student outcomes. What happens at the board table will impact students—positively or negatively.
In light of this, school heads and boards must acknowledge three important challenges:
1. The challenge of Christian school leadership.
The head of school role is difficult and often thankless. Many school heads rarely—if ever—receive meaningful encouragement from their boards. Boards that view their role strictly in terms of oversight and accountability will inevitably focuson “snoopervision” rather than support.
Boards should understand that “it is lonely at the top.” A person who accepts a board position should commit to never publicly criticize their school head—whether in the school parking lot, the grocery store aisle, or in a private conversation with a school parent. Their criticism and coaching should be done privately with the school head or within official board meetings. In conversations with parents about school issues, effective board members always direct parents to communicate directly with the school head (or the appropriate school leader) regarding the issue.
2. The challenge of “leading up.”
Generally, heads of school have more training and awareness of the proper role of the board than board members do—yet the head of school is the board’s employee. Often board chairs and board membersknow much about “how we have always done this” and less about best practices in governance. Flourishing school boards are serious about professional development for the board. Because boards often have rotating members, effective orientation and ongoing education are essential as well.
3. The communication challenge.
The most important relationship in schools is the relationship between the board chair and the head of school. School relationships depend on open communication just as much as husband- wife or parent-child relationships. There should be frequent dialogue between the board chair and the head—not just at the board meeting. The head of school deserves constructive feedback from the board, and the wise board chair listens to the opinions and counsel of the school head. In the past few months, four different school heads recently released from their positions told me that they had positive reviews by their boards (some with formal renewal of a contract) before being told that their services were no longer needed. Sometimes school heads may be ineffective and need coaching or eventual dismissal, but it is unethical to release a school head without ever providing performance feedback along the way. Trust is the glue that holds relationships together, whether at home or at school.
A person who accepts a board position should commit to never publicly criticize their school head—whether in the school parking lot, the grocery store aisle, or in a private conversation with a school parent.
This is not an exhaustive list—there are many other challenges that come with board governance. There are micromanaging school boards that do not understand the role differential between board and administration. At the other extreme are absentee boards that do not live up to the title of “trustee” because they have no sense of what is going on at the school and blindly accept everything the head tells them. Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” serves as a helpful guideline for boards.
In addition, flourishing school boards pay attention to all four strands of the board governance continuum:
Most Christian school boards have foundational documents (mission, vision, values, statement of faith, student outcomes) in place. Effective boards review those documents periodically, primarily as important reminders of why Christ-centered education is worth the investment of adequate resources.
Effective boards realize that they have not communicated unless they have done so in writing. Boards that rely on the longest-serving board member’s memory have not communicated expectations clearly to the head
of school. Wise boards incorporate the head’s advice in shaping policies; wise heads of school realize that they are responsible for implementing those polices effectively.
A well-organized and current board policy manual is a prerequisite to orienting new board members.
3. Board development.
This strand is an area of weaknessfor many boards. A board profile is a written description of what an ideal board looks like for a school, including both individual qualities and a total board profile. It is helpfulto have financial, educational, pastoral, facility, and general business expertise on a board.
However, personal spiritual maturity and deep commitment to the mission of the school are more important prerequisites than occupational expertise. Implied in a board profile is an organizational structure
that pays attention to identifying and recruiting mission- appropriate board members. That may be a task for a separate nominations committee, executive committee, governance committee, or “committee on trustees.” This committee should be responsible for all of the elements of this strand: recruiting new board members, organizing board training, and carrying out annual evaluations of the board.
4. Board and head of school roles.
Effective boards have one employee: the head of school. Having multiple individuals (e.g., school head and business manager) reporting to
the board can create significant managerial problems. An effective board has a clear job description for the head of school, as well as clarity regarding what belongs to the board and what belongs to the staff.
Lastly, I must address some important questions not specifically mentioned in the Flourishing Schools Framework:
1. Does ACSI recommend any particular models of board governance? ACSI does not endorse any specific model, but there are several helpful publications that describe
an overall model for board governance. Over the years, many schools and nonprofit organizations have adopted policy governance, sometimes referred to as the “Carver Model” (Carver 1997). When properly understood and implemented, this can be an effective governance model; its specific strength is the clarity provided in distinguishing between the role of the board and the role of the head. When these roles are wrongly understood, school heads can avoid transparency with the board and move in an authoritarian leadership style. When applied improperly, however, the model can create an insurmountable “wall” between the board and the staff.
ACSI offers two publications using similar concepts. Mission Directed: Governing Your Christian School with Purpose (Stob 2015) is written by a former head of school who describes his school’s change from a traditional model—where the board was involved in too many details and, therefore, focused on the wrong priorities—to a policy-based model that focused on achieving the mission of the school. Community Governance (Bartlett and Campey 2008), written by two Australian Christian school leaders, provides a model that defines the “moral owners” of a school and the resulting proper roles of a governance board and school staff.
2. Who is responsible for overall strategic planning for the school? The answer to this question depends on what is meant by strategic planning. There is a difference between true strategic financial planning (primarily a board responsibility) and strategic operational planning (primarily a staff responsibility). In any model, the board must see to it that plans are being made for the future. In my experience, the most effective strategic planning is led (either formally or informally) by the head of school and has strong board involvement. A common weakness in strategic planning is failing to address the financial resources that will be needed to implement the plan. Tuition levels and financial aid policies are board issues; curriculum development and staffing decisions belong to the school head and his or her team.
3. Should board members be expected to give money and raise money for the school? Traditional independent school wisdom says that every trustee should possess at least two of the “three W’s”: work, wealth, and wisdom. (All Christian school board members should also possess spiritual maturity and a deep commitment to Christian schooling.) All board members should be willing to “work” by faithful attendance at board meetings and additional volunteer assignments as needed. Every board member should also be giving financial support (gifts over and above tuition payments) as their means permit. (Every board member should be a donor.) It is unwise to make wealth a requirement for board membership; nor should it be viewed as a disadvantage if God has blessed a particular family and they are able to give generously. The primary issue is godly wisdom, not material wealth. However, all board members should understand the significance of voluntary financial gifts, and support efforts by the school and the board to raise funds. This could take the form of accompanying other board members or school leaders in solicitations, as well as supporting school personnel who work in the development or advancement areas. Board members should understand the 80/20 reality: usually 80% or more of voluntary gift support comes from 20% (or even 5%) of the donors.
The mission of your Christian school is worthy of excellence
Although the men and women on the frontlines of offices and classrooms are critically important, excellence begins with the board and the head of school. School boards are fiduciary trustees entrusted with a sacred mission. Every Christian school board should seek to be a flourishing school board in order to achieve that mission with excellence.
Stephen Dill, EdD, served at Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square, PA, for 40 years before joining the ACSI staff in 2013. Currently, he leads ACSI’s work in the United States as senior vice president for ACSI USA.
Bartlett, D., and P. Campey. 2008. Community governance: Framework for building healthy Christian organizations. Gosford, AU: Resolve Consulting Group.
Carver, J. 1997. Boards that make a difference: A new design for leadership in nonprofit organizations, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Stob, L. 2015. Mission directed: Governing your Christian school with purpose. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications.