Every school board and its superintendent have a clear choice. You can merely inherit the board of the past in terms of its “governing design” – its role, structure and processes. This is the path of least resistance and minimum pain, but it ensures that the board can’t get much better at doing its critical governing work. The choice that I recommend – and that the Teton County School District in Jackson, Wyoming made – is to take the initiative in developing the board’s governing capacity, drawing on advances in the rapidly changing field of public and nonprofit governance.
The least effective way to develop your school board’s governing capacity, in my experience, is to put the board through some kind of training program, while leaving current structure and processes in place. Not much better is to hire a consultant to fashion recommendations for improving your board’s structure and processes and then attempting to sell the board on the improvements. In the latter case, board members, as is almost always true of passive audiences, will fail to own the recommended improvements and, therefore, are unlikely to implement them. By far a more effective approach is to create a task force consisting of board members and the superintendent , which is charged to come up with practical steps that need to be taken to strengthen the board’s governing capacity. This is the route that the Teton County School District Board of Trustees and superintendent chose to follow – with tremendous success.
The Teton County Experience
At a special work session in November 2007, The Teton County School District Board of Trustees unanimously took a number of actions aimed at turning an already good board consisting of dedicated Trustees into an even higher-impact governing body. The Trustees, by formal resolution, adopted a “Board Governing Mission,” spelling out the Trustees’ principal governing functions, put in place a structure of three Board standing committees – Governance, Planning and Development, and Performance Monitoring/External Relations – and adopted a set of guidelines for standing committee operations. These and other governing improvements were in the Action Report developed by the Board’s “High-Impact Governing Task Force” over a three month period in late 2007. Headed by Board Chair Janine Bay-Teske and consisting of two other Trustees and the Superintendent, the High-Impact Governing Task Force had been charged by Janine to “. . . generate an Action Report for presentation at a special Board work session on November 13, 2007. The Action Report will consist of detailed, practical recommendations for strengthening the Board’s governing role, structure, and processes.”
The Teton County High-Impact Governing Task Force proved to be a highly effective vehicle for achieving significant change in the Board of Trustees governing role, structure, and process in a relatively brief period of time. Five key factors appear to account for the Task Force’s success as a governance change vehicle:
- The Task Force employed a rigorous, transparent methodology in carrying out its charge, thereby lending credibility to its recommendations for strengthening the Board’s governing role and structure. As Chair Janine Bay-Teske pointed out, “It was patently obvious to other Board members that our Task Force hadn’t rushed to judgment or advocated pet, preconceived solutions in coming up with the recommendations.” For example, the Task Force early in the process fashioned a set of “design guidelines” that it would follow in developing its action recommendations to the Board (e.g., that the recommendations should be very practical and easily implemented, without an extraordinary resource commitment; a detailed definition of “high-impact” governing) and identified the principal governance issues that its recommendations should address (e.g., the need for a clearer definition of the Board’s role; the absence of a contemporary committee structure to assist the Board in carrying out its governing work).
- The Board Chair and Superintendent, Pam Shea, functioned as a cohesive leadership team in guiding and supporting the High-Impact Governing Task Force effort from beginning to end. Pam and Janine worked closely together in developing the detailed Task Force charge, finding a consultant with extensive governance experience to serve as “Governance Counsel” to the Task Force, developing Task Force agendas, and making sure that Pam’s senior executives were kept in the loop. There’s no question that Pam’s being a passionate advocate for the Board’s development made a difference. In Pam’s words, “The High-Impact Governing Task Force was a concrete expression of my passionate belief that governing is a team effort, with my Board and I working in close partnership.”
- The whole Board was kept apprised of the Task Force’s work and was provided with an opportunity for substantive input early in the process, when in a special Board work session Task Force members presented the design guidelines, governance issues, and a preliminary draft of the Board Governing Mission. Also, the Task Force Action Report was sent to the Board a week before the culminating November work session so that Trustees would have ample time to familiarize themselves with the recommendations.
- Task Force members took the lead – as highly visible owners of, and enthusiastic change champions for, their work – in presenting their recommendations at the November work session: peers presenting to peers, rather than an outside consultant attempting to sell the Board on change. In fact, not only did Task Force members divvy up the PowerPoint slide presentation that they employed in presenting their recommendations, they took the trouble to fine-tune their presentation at a “dress rehearsal” the night before the Board work session. And at the work session, Task Force members facilitated the discussion following each presentation segment. As Janine observed, “It was obvious that we knew our stuff inside-out and were quite capable of fielding any questions that came up from our colleagues.”
- And in fulfilling its charge, the Task Force was able to make use of its consultant’s extensive experience in similar board capacity-building initiatives and his strong group facilitation skills. According to Janine, “We were fortunate to find someone to help us who was up-to-date on developments in K-12 governance and who could also facilitate us through lots of really complex discussion.”
© Doug Eadie; all rights reserved.