As we all grasp those last few minutes of summer, many school and board leaders confront board orientation and the board calendar ahead. We all recognize that boards are supposed to do a lot of “work.” So what “work” should the board of your particular school be embracing this year? How do you know? And how do you set the stage for good, fiduciary, strategic, and generative conversations? If you have not done this planning yet, now is the time for the board chair, head of school, and other administrative leaders to study your board calendar and how it overlaps with the various decisions that your board has coming down the pike this year. This approach—combined with the school’s strategic plan for the year and the relating goals and objectives—should make clear the path for both your committees and your overall board calendar.
What’s Your Plan?
Most schools have a plan because one is required for accreditation. Some schools have a very specific five-year plan; others have a vision supported by reasonably consistent ongoing strategic planning and goal setting. While we find the former approach in many schools, some version of the latter is becoming more standard as many schools fear that a long-term plan will be outdated before completion.
If your school is interested in updating its vision or broad strategic plan, you should periodically revisit or re-craft the goals and objectives within the vision.. Some schools do this yearly, while others take more time between “check-ins.” This check-in process often involves a survey of at least the board, sometimes staff (either the entire staff or the leadership team) and, occasionally, constituencies such as parents, alumni, donors, and others in the community. This input helps guide the board in staying within the mission and vision of the school when laying the course for the school to move forward. The school should also take into account outside data to ensure that the school’s offerings remain both relevant and appropriate.
Now What? Goals and Objectives
Assuming that your school has its plan in hand, you should draft a list of overall goals and objectives for the year—and potentially, several years—resulting from the plan. These are the steps the school plans to take to get where it’s going. In many cases, several areas within the school will take ownership of objectives within larger goals. For example, within the overall strategic plan and vision of the school, there may be an overall goal to consider adding a sixth grade to help your school’s enrollment management. Maybe you feel that you are losing students when they enter middle school to either other local independent schools or public schools. While this is clearly not a one-year goal, this year’s goal may be to determine the feasibility of adding a sixth grade for an upcoming academic year.
The school’s administrative leadership may begin the conversation by collating inquiries received from the admissions office from fifth graders, detailing the impact on the overall facilities and staffing of adding a grade, and other data points. The board will want to assign a committee or create a task force to begin a review of the data and explore the steps and ramifications of such a decision before it gets to the full board. The work of the board committee and administrative team will ultimately bring the details to the board for a full discussion and decision, in time for a successful launch for the anticipated academic year. Invariably, if the board decides to go in this direction, there will be more goals and objectives tied to that launch, including work by the administrative team as well as fund-raising and public support from the board.
Mapping Your Work
Assign follow-through for every major goal within the strategic plan or vision. In this way, the school leadership can track where various initiatives are in the process as well as the responsibilities that various people and roles may play in helping the plan come to fruition.
For boards, the key is ensuring that the board as a whole—as well as each committee and individual board member—knows what its work is within the overall plan. Each committee should clearly understand its objectives, even if the objectives are the same from year to year (e.g., the finance committee always maintains oversight of the school’s finances). At the end of the year, these committees can then evaluate their performance and the officers of the boards can readily see what work was done and who was doing it. The trustee committee can also see where it needs more individual strengths for recruitment purposes.
The most helpful outcome from this overall work map, at least in terms of board meetings, is that you will clarify the board calendar for both committees and board meetings. The committees and leadership should be able to see when certain strategic conversations and votes will need to happen and can tee up those items on the board calendar ahead. You can also schedule appropriately professional development or other background information conversations that need to occur during the year. And the school administrative team will have a better idea of when its data and input will be needed at different junctures.
The Individual Board Member
A common complaint about boards is that some members don’t participate as fully as others. As a practical matter, the sooner you can lay out the details of the school’s goals and objectives,, the more easily individual board members can embrace the tangible nature of their work. If the board development calendar is clear, you may gain better attendance and participation. Where certain objectives don’t seem to have the needed board support, you can assign work, or—even better—board members can volunteer to take on those “orphan tasks.”
Easing into It
This level of planning does not happen overnight---there is a coordination element to it. Initially, individuals may be uncomfortable with this level of accountability within a system, as well as new requirements that they need to perform in a very concrete way. However, even taking small steps towards creating and finding an even rhythm to your school can help bring a little more order to bear in defining the direction of your school.
Debra P. Wilson is NAIS’s general counsel.
Sample Board of Trustees Meeting Calendar
Head of school and administrative team meet to identify this year’s primary goals, particularly those goals and objectives where board support is crucial.
Head of school and board chair meet to review overall goals and objectives for school, as well as agree on current and potential goals and objectives for board. Board chair and head of school develop the following calendar based on the school’s identified goals of greater enrollment, greater diversity, and developing alternative revenue streams. The individual committees will also develop calendars reflecting these aims, particularly the advancement, finance, and strategy and initiatives committees.
8:30-10:30 am: New Trustee Orientation
10:30 am-1 pm: Opening Board Meeting
Strategic Focus: The Admissions Marketplace (report from Enrollment and Financial Sustainability Task Forces)
Head of School Goals, Overall School Goals
Results of Board Assessment
Discussion of Board Education Needs
11:00 am-2:30 pm
Strategic Focus: Report from Financial Sustainability Task Force and conversation
6:30-8:30 pm (optional budget meeting if needed)
Strategic Focus: Mid-year check on goals and objectives for board and planning for remainder of academic year.
8:30 am-12 noon
Education Session: The needs of the 21st Century marketplace and how our school compares
Strategic Focus: Marketing the school in a changing marketplace (reports from Enrollment and Financial Sustainability Task Forces)
Education Session: Enrollment management during challenging times
Strategic Focus: Enrollment challenges and opportunities
Board Business: Development Update
Education Session: Our school’s salaries and benefits in this marketplace
Strategic Focus: The coming challenges of teacher recruitment and retention
Board Business: Selection of New Trustees
8:30 am-12 noon
Strategic Focus: Final Recommendations from Enrollment and Financial Sustainability Task Forces
Celebration of Retiring Trustees
Assessment Instructions and Timetable
Calendar/Focus for next year