Boardroom: Understanding the Parent Trustee Role

Winter 2022

By Angie Drakulich

shutterstock_1830023732-copy-(2).pngIn 2015, NAIS partnered with the capstone program at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education for a study that explored the topic of parent trustees. According to “Independent School Leadership: Heads, Boards, and Strategic Thinking”, which surveyed about 800 heads and board chairs, 41% do not have a preference on the makeup of their board. Twenty percent prefer a majority of current parents, and 16% prefer an equal balance of current parents and nonparents. The remaining 22% preferred a majority of nonparents.
Despite these preferences, most independent school boards are made up primarily of current and immediate past parents. The in-practice numbers reveal a greater percentage of current parents. In the same survey, 52% of participants shared that more than half of their board members are current parents. Forty-four percent of respondents say that current parents make up more than 60% of their boards. The majority of those surveyed said their school did not have any formal policies on the makeup of their boards.
Parents are excited to be intellectually invested in the educational outcomes of a unique community, often considered a family’s home away from home. In my experience as a parent trustee, I’ve recognized the importance of acknowledging the distinct roles of trustee and parent—and the emotions that come with each. Parents are invited to ask hard questions about courses, schedules, and so on, especially as they relate to their family. But when trustees are also current parents, it’s easy for the lines around their duties as trustees and their concerns as parents to intersect. It’s critical for boards to ensure that trustee training addresses this duality, offers clear guidance, and maintains boundaries and accountability.

Knowing Your Role

Like any new job, becoming a trustee—particularly a parent trustee—involves an important and comprehensive onboarding process that clearly outlines key responsibilities and expectations. The board chair or board membership committee chair typically leads this process, which introduces trustees to the idea that they oversee the head of school but not other administrators, faculty, or staff members; they don’t have a say in curricular changes, scheduling, or day-to-day operations; and they are there to look at the big picture and ensure that the school’s actions and outcomes align with its mission and strategic plan. A board is also responsible for ensuring that the school is financially stable and in compliance with applicable laws and accreditation standards.
Providing new trustees with specific details about when to turn their board role “on” or “off,” however, is often overlooked and has become a learn-as-you-go and use-common-sense situation. To avoid missing this important onboarding opportunity, the board chair and other board members should share with new trustees what’s expected of them day to day and what challenges they may face. It’s up to the board to provide when-and-how scenarios.
During the onboarding process, new trustees will likely be asked to sign a confidentiality and disclosure agreement. New parent trustees should review confidentiality agreements carefully to be sure they understand the requirements and ask questions about anything that seems unclear. Confidentiality determines the success of the board to fulfill its duties and to the school’s reputation and longevity. Trustees have access to the school’s financials, enrollment numbers, head of school insights, and, when crises arise, crisis management plans. Any documents from meetings must be kept secure, and details of a board discussion should not be shared. In my experience, board-presented data and strategies regarding finances, building and grounds, and enrollment and admission are meant to stay in the boardroom. If a spouse/partner or fellow parent inquires about such details, information on the school website, in the annual report, or from official school communications can be shared.

What’s the Scenario

There are some common situations in which the lines tend to get blurry for trustees who are parents—and I’ve seen them play out. Boards can use these scenarios during trustee training as guidance. For every situation, trustees who are parents should always ask, “Am I operating from my role as a parent or as a trustee?”
When there’s an issue affecting a trustee’s child
Let’s say a trustee’s child is struggling in a particular class or experiencing bullying, so the parent reaches out to the teacher. Throughout the entire process, the trustee must keep the parent hat on so their actions are not considered an abuse of power. This means no jumping ladders to go straight to the head of school, no asking for a teacher or another child to be reprimanded, and no calling out their role on the board as justification to be heard. The school’s protocols for communication must be followed. If the issue is not resolved with the teacher, the parent may contact the department or division head. And in the worst-case scenario, either the parent or the teacher escalates the issue to the head of school.
In these cases, it’s also important for the parent trustee to acknowledge the elephant in the room when engaging with a faculty or staff member. It could be awkward for everyone, so being transparent and direct is advised. In an email to an administrator, a parent could write, “Full disclosure: I am a member of the board of trustees but am writing to you in my role as a parent.”
When a program seems misaligned with the school mission
Imagine a new program is added to the curriculum and a parent trustee thinks it is out of step with the school’s mission. This situation is complicated and can require both the parent and trustee hat. As a parent, the individual can share their concerns with the academic department chair, but they should disclose their board role.
They also can present their concern as a trustee to the board chair or chair of the board’s academic excellence committee (or comparable committee). Even though board members do not have a role in curricula, they are expected to help maintain the school’s mission. Thus, asking that the curricular issue be added to the agenda of the next board meeting and raising it as a matter of school mission misalignment would be acceptable. If the board agrees, the next step for the board or committee chair would be to reach out to the head of school to share the concern and demonstrate, through parent satisfaction surveys or academic results, how the change may not align with the strategic mission or goals of the school. Ultimately, however, the head of school will have the final say on the program’s existence.
When you are asked to give
Trustees need to be good ambassadors for giving, which at times can overlap with their role as parents. For the most part, when it comes to giving, parent trustees typically need to wear their trustee hat. Board participation in an annual fund, for example, is likely required as it sets an example for the larger school community. In most cases, however, trustees are not asked to give a specific amount, so even a small donation can fulfill this duty.
It can get complicated, however, when other parents complain to trustees about being asked to donate on top of tuition and fees and wonder why they need to give more. Trustees can ask their board finance committee to share the details of where tuition dollars go (typically to faculty salaries) and why additional fundraising is needed to support things such as facilities and grounds, extracurricular programs, athletics, and more. Then they can better understand why giving is important, set an example for others in the community, and tout the importance of giving.
When a new hire is not wanted
When the head of school hires a new division or department head, and after a few weeks into their role, a majority of the parent community expresses discontent with the hire, a trustee must immediately remember their role on the board. Texts among parents and parking-lot conversations start to heat up. One day, a parent comes to the parent trustee and says, “You’re on the board, right? How can we get this person fired?”
Trustees shouldn’t give their opinion on the situation (even if they have one). A response might be, “I have heard the rumblings about this, and as a trustee, I do not have a say in the hiring or firing of administrators or faculty members. However, as a parent, you and I have the right to present our concerns to the head of school.” After your conversation, it is acceptable to share the conversation with the board chair so they are aware; if numerous complaints have been received, it is acceptable for the board chair to objectively share these concerns with the head of school without asking for specific changes to be made. Trustees also have the right to express any personal concerns as a parent to the head of school, clarifying which hat they are wearing. It is up to the head to determine the next steps.
When dynamics shift among parent friends
It’s not uncommon for people to see others differently after they join the board. In most cases, they will respect that trustees take their role seriously and acknowledge that there are boundaries. In these situations, remembering trustee confidentiality agreements and remaining neutral is key.
There will always be a few parents who come to the parent trustee in search of “intel” about staffing, retention, building projects, and so on. Some may even seek an admission “favor.” Managing these communications can become more difficult during a school crisis. It’s OK for a trustee to say that they cannot share details of a situation but that they are happy to relay relevant concerns or questions to the right person.

At the End of the School Day

There are many benefits to being a parent and a trustee. Individuals in these dual roles are able to see the strategic work of the board and head of school trickle down to the administration and day-to-day classroom learning. Parent trustees are able to fully dedicate themselves to the mission and vision of the school because they understand the meaning behind actions regarding enrollment management, development and fundraising, and curricular or scheduling changes.
Trustees also have the opportunity to help grow and diversify the board’s makeup by adding alumni and local community members and by ensuring that a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committee is active. Additional voices and outside perspectives can not only bolster your board’s efforts but also ensure that the student experience is more inclusive, dynamic, and forward-thinking. And, perhaps most rewarding, trustees get to witness firsthand how behind-the-scenes goals such as providing meaningful teacher-student relationships and stimulating intellectual curiosity are cemented within their own children’s experiences.  

Angie Drakulich

Angie Drakulich is an immediate past parent and current trustee at The Winston School of Short Hills in New Jersey. She previously served as the content and marketing director for Ranney School in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. The recommendations in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent those of either school.