In the recent video interview I recorded with them, Board Chair Carolyn Rye and Superintendent Aaron Spence of the Virginia Beach City Schools make a compelling case for employing well-designed board standing committees to assist the school board in carrying out its governing responsibilities. While editing the video earlier this week, I recalled an incident early in my career as a governance consultant and coach that makes me cringe now. At a workshop I was presenting at a state school boards association conference, a participant asked me for my take on board standing committees. At that point in my career, 30-some years ago, committees didn’t make my top-ten list of keys to effective governance, so my somewhat perfunctory response went something like: “Well, they can probably make board meetings more productive and at the very least save board members and administrators from meetings lasting until 10 p.m.”
Talk about understatement! Since those early days, experience has taught me what the Virginia Beach City Schools – one of Virginia’s largest school divisions, with almost 70,000 students – and a rapidly growing number of districts around the country recognize: Well designed standing committees are one of the preeminent keys to the kind of high-impact governing that makes a real difference in a school district’s affairs. Indeed, they now make my top-three list of factors determining the quality of a board’s governing decisions and judgments – not theoretically speaking, but on the basis of actual performance.
Carolyn and Aaron observe in our interview that standing committees not only lead to more effective full board meetings, they also actively engage board members in shaping governing decisions, transforming them into satisfied owners of their governing work. This is night and day different from the old-time passive-reactive model that turns board members into an audience for administrators’ reports and recommendations at full board meetings. Carolyn and Aaron also point out that their Board Governance Committee serves as a vehicle for ensuring that the Board-Superintendent working relationship in the Virginia Beach City Schools gets the attention it deserves and that this high-stakes partnership remains healthy – primarily by providing a venue for detailed discussion of board-superintendent relationship issues.
One of the criticisms of standing committees I used to hear frequently in my workshops around the country is that they invite board members to “micro-manage.” This is certainly true, but only of poorly designed “silo” committees aligned with specific programmatic and administrative functions, such as curriculum and instruction, human resource management, buildings and grounds, and the like. Broad-based committees, as Virginia Beach City Schools’ Carolyn Rye and Aaron Spence attest, actually guard against board members getting enmeshed in the weeds.
Since structure is so obviously a critical element of the governance mosaic of all organizations, committees have been a major topic of this blog. In this regard, I’ll remind our readers of a recent post at this blog, featuring my video interview with the Board President, Vice President, and Superintendent of the Rockford (Illinois) Public Schools, who describe a highly creative variation on the standing committee theme: dividing a monthly board committee of the whole work session into standing committee segments, each segment being chaired by a different board member but each also involving all board members. If you missed the post, here’s the link: