A superintendent called me recently, asking if I’d be interested in presenting a governance training workshop for her school board. She explained that several board members were coming dangerously close to “micromanaging,” and she wanted them to understand the boundaries between “administrative” and “governing” work. The example she gave involved a discussion at the most recent board meeting about travel expenditures over the past six months, including how decisions were made about who would be taking what trips and what kinds of reports were required about travel.
I agreed that there did appear to be some micromanaging going on, but I cautioned her that preaching to board members about not breaching the “firewall” between governing and administrative work probably wouldn’t have much, if any impact. Quick fixes like training tend not to have an enduring, fundamental impact. Anyway, I said, there isn’t a really solid line dividing the two kinds of work, and even if there were, board members don’t really take to being lectured about being good little boys and girls and coloring within the lines.
So what, she asked, should she do about the apparently growing problem? I suggested taking a close look at whether her board was being invited to micromanage by two very common phenomena that I’ve encountered over and over again. One is poorly designed board “silo” committees that have more to do with administration than governing. Classic examples would be personnel, finance, buildings and grounds, and curriculum and instruction. None of these committees corresponds to a broad governing function such as strategic planning or performance monitoring. Rather, they are highly technical in nature, and involving board members in such committees essentially turns them into technical advisors and invites them to micromanage technical details.
Another common problem is the absence of well-designed processes for engaging board members in a meaningful fashion in shaping key governing decisions, such as adoption of the annual operating plan and budget. The absence of well-designed engagement processes results in a vacuum that board members – typically being high-achievers who want to make a difference – tend to fill, even if that involves getting mired down in pretty nitty-gritty work.
Rather than wasting precious time and money on a futile quick fix, this superintendent very wisely chose to work closely with her board president in spearheading an initiative to develop a modern board committee structure. Aligned with broad governing functions, these updated standing committees would replace the outdated, dysfunctional silo committees that had been luring the board into the weeds.
And each of the new standing committees would be charged to work with the superintendent in updating processes for board engagement in its respective functional area. For example, the new planning and development committee would oversee the design of a process for engaging board members early in the annual budget preparation process, well before submission of the finished budget document to the board for adoption.