Experience has taught me that a retreat involving your school board and senior administrators can be a powerful tool for building your board’s governing capacity and strengthening the board-superintendent partnership. But – and it’s a really big caveat – you’ve got to make sure the retreat is well-designed. Otherwise, it could fall apart, at the expense of the superintendent’s credibility. The following keys to a successful retreat are drawn from Chapter Six of my new book, Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership: 11 Critical Questions You Need to Answer.
- Create an ad hoc Retreat Steering Committee headed by the board president/chair and consisting of two to three other board members and the superintendent – making sure that the Committee is as diverse as feasible in terms of being representative of the board’s composition and board members’ viewpoints.
- Retain a consultant/facilitator with substantial governance expertise and experience to provide high-level support.
- Have the consultant/facilitator develop – on the basis of interviews and review of governance documentation – a detailed retreat design consisting of specific retreat objectives, a description of the retreat structure (including detailed descriptions of the breakout groups that will be employed), and the blow-by-blow agenda and present the design to the Steering Committee.
- Ensure that the retreat design includes several breakout group sessions led by board members to ensure active engagement – typically two to three groups meeting concurrently in each of two to three breakout group rounds (for a total of four to nine different breakout groups over the course of the day).
- Make sure the consultant/facilitator provides the board members who will be leading the breakout groups with a detailed orientation on their role and their groups’ tasks so that they will succeed in leading their groups.
- Distribute the retreat design – in the form of a memorandum from the Steering Committee members and the consultant/facilitator – to all retreat participants at least a week in advance of the retreat.
- Preserve and transcribe the breakout group worksheets, which the consultant/facilitator should draw on in writing the action report following up on the retreat.
- Involve the Steering Committee in reviewing and finalizing the consultant/facilitator’s action report draft, transmitting the action report to all retreat participants in the form of a memorandum for the Steering Committee and consultant/facilitator.
- And have Steering Committee members present the action report recommendations to retreat participants in a special work session and have participants formally approve the action recommendations, typically by adopting resolutions moved by the Steering Committee.
I have found that the peers-presenting-to-peers approach works extremely well in securing board approval for such board capacity building recommendations as fashioning a board governing mission describing the board’s detailed responsibilities and adopting an updated structure of board standing committees, a set of standing committee operating guidelines, an updated set of board member governing performance standards, and a new process for board evaluation of superintendent performance. However, be advised that meticulous preparation is critical to success, including: developing PowerPoint slides for the presentation and making sure Steering Committee members participate in a rehearsal session prior to the formal presentation so that they are comfortable with the slides and have an opportunity to discuss how to address anticipated questions.