“Could our five-person school board be realistically divided into two, much less three, standing committees? Wouldn’t a committee with only two board members lack credibility?” I expected the question, which came right after I’d presented my slides on board standing committees at the preconference workshop I conducted at AASA’s National Conference on Education last February. I’d covered the powerful benefits of well-designed standing committees – including far more productive board business meetings and a richer, more satisfying governing experience for board members – and had described a model committee structure aligned with the streams of board governing decisions and judgments: planning; performance monitoring; and external/stakeholder relations. I’d also pointed out that traditional “silo” committees aligned with narrow administrative and programmatic functions, such as personnel, buildings and grounds, curriculum and instruction, etc., inevitably draw board members into the weeds, turning them into technical advisors and micro-managers at the expense of higher-impact governing decisions and judgments.
Now, back to the question. My response? No, it really isn’t realistic to chop a five member board into two standing committees; and yes, two-member committees would lack credibility, principally because they wouldn’t be diverse enough in terms of experience, expertise, and perspectives. I also expected the follow-up question: “So is there any way my five-person board can get the benefits of the committees you’ve just described?” My answer? “Definitely: by using what I call ‘virtual’ committees.” I went on to explain that so-called virtual committees are being effectively used by an increasing number of smaller public/nonprofit governing boards around the country. The virtual approach to standing committees is simple in concept and relatively easy to put into practice:
- Hold a 3-hour board committee-of-the-whole work session monthly, a couple of weeks before the monthly board business meeting.
- Divide the committee-of-the-whole work session into three segments: a planning segment; a performance monitoring segment; and an external/stakeholder relations segment.
- Have the board president/chair assign different board members to chair each of the three virtual committee segments, and have the superintendent assign three members of her cabinet to serve as “chief staff liaison” to each of the virtual committees, responsible for coordinating preparation for each virtual committee meeting, including development of the committee agenda; for preparing the virtual committee chair to lead each meeting; and for writing the committee’s report to the board for the upcoming business meeting.
Organizing the board’s governing work by the three preeminent streams of board governing decisions and judgments is a huge step forward on the governance effectiveness front – much more than just a half-way house – even if actual standalone standing committees aren’t feasible.
This post draws on Chapter 8 of my newest K-12 leadership book, Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).