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  • Pam Clarke

An Independent School is only as strong as its Board of Trustees.

Too many members of an independent school community don’t know or do not understand the importance that a Board of Trustees plays in the life of the school; this is regrettable because the strength and energy of the Board have a direct effect on the health of the school. In fact, the independent school is only as strong as its Board of Trustees.

The Board has several specific tasks:

1. They set the mission of the school.

2. They hire and then support the Head of School.

3. They are ultimately responsible for the fiscal health of the school.

The Strength of Individual Board Members

Most independent school Boards are comprised of 12-25 people who may be alums of the school, current or former parents, and/or friends from the larger community. Often a Board includes the head of another independent school or relevant not-for-profit. Members of the Board are self-selected and rotate on a prescribed set of term limits; they are chosen for their ‘wisdom, wealth, and work’.

Strong board members give freely of their time and regularly of their treasure, and their talents are both needed and appreciated. Like the school, Boards change often and must work to adjust to changes in culture and time. And, while their value is great, there are no “perks” attached to this job. Trustees are volunteers and are careful NOT to ask for special favors or treatment for their children.

Trustees are expected to make the school their highest philanthropic priority; they are expected to give meaningful annual gifts and to provide the seed money for a capital campaign – typically, half or more of a campaign will come from the Board itself.

This is volunteer work at the highest level. Boards meet about once a month, and attendance is very important. Each Board member is expected to sit on one or more committees and to read carefully all the committee reports, board minutes, and any documents sent by the school in preparation for the meeting. In addition, the Board member should read all the information that the school sends out as well as large chunks of the website. To be very supportive, a board member must have a current picture of the school and its operations.

The Strength of the Relationship Between the Board and the Head of School

The relationship between the Board Chair and Head of School must be strong and significant; in most independent schools, these two people meet in person or at least by phone once a week or more. While the board officially stays out of operational decisions, the chair’s understanding of how the school works and how decisions were made is key to maintaining the trust the Board has in the Head of School. The Head and the Chair must be able to speak freely and transparently.

When I was Head of the Masters School, its transformation from a failing girl's boarding school to a prospering coeducational boarding and day school required many very important Board decisions – most notably to change the very mission of the school from girls only to coed. The very core of the school's identity had to change! The transformation took several years of debate and discussion; the Board Chair at the time, Edgar Masters, was brilliant, compassionate and beyond patient; the school owes its success not to him or to me but to the strong trust we had in each other. That school was restored to its former glory because of that trust and a very strong Board of Trustees.

The Strength of Your Board

Part of my consulting business is working with Boards to help them become a strong and vital part of their school’s success. An outsider can make suggestions that your current head may shy away from, leading to rather awkward exchanges and, all too often, misunderstandings.

A workshop on governance can include the basic responsibilities of individual board members, expected behavior and performance of the group as a whole, a deep dive look at the school’s mission, and more. A sampling of case studies will illustrate the Board’s responsibilities and expected responses to actual issues that arise in a busy and complex school. Time to understand the most effective practices is time well spent.

The outcome is a thoughtful understanding of the role of the Board coupled with a ‘real life’ look at the many current issues that all schools face today. This outside reaffirmation of their roles and responsibilities gives the Board confidence in its practice and preparation.

Have a question about the role of the Board of Trustees in the operation of an Independent School? Email me:

All the best,

Pam Clarke

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