Having spent much of my life involved with independent schools, either as a student or teacher, I have some sense of what independent school boards might consider doing to boost effectiveness.
I base my assessment not on any one board, but rather on collective observations and discussions with parents, students, teachers, administrators, alumni, and trustees from multiple institutions.
Great independent school boards are transparent, not only in how they operate, but also in what they expect from the head of school. Too often, students, parents, and teachers don’t know what boards expect from the man or woman most in charge, making it difficult for the community to recognize any progress, or lack thereof, toward specific goals. This creates a rift, while fostering a greater degree of animosity and misunderstanding among all stakeholders.
For legal and ethical reasons, obviously, boards must keep certain information confidential. I can just imagine what would happen if the chair decided to make public each employee’s salary. Still, I feel strongly that a board should make readily available its meeting agenda and minutes, even if some redaction is necessary. Better still, unless a closed executive session is deemed necessary, boards should broadcast and record meetings—a common practice for most town meetings and political gatherings.
And I support an even bolder tactic to boost transparency. In Maryland, Sandy Spring Friends School board meetings include non-voting teacher, student, and parent representatives. Division heads and other administrators also frequently attend. In New York, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, also known as LREI, has three full-voting faculty members on its board, one from each division. In Illinois, The Ancona School allows observers at its public session, and a faculty-selected “Board Observer” attends every meeting. In California, two faculty members also attend board meetings at The Urban School of San Francisco. The list continues.
I recently spoke with Kate Brandler, who teaches science at The Bryn Mawr School, an independent school in Baltimore, Maryland. Brandler also serves as a non-voting board member.
Believe it or not, teachers sometimes want to communicate with trustees. The old “chain-of-command” standard, where it’s taboo to contact board members about school maters, has a potential to do more harm than good. Certainly, it’s important to have a policy in place that guards against teachers constantly calling trustees. But if a board receives information only through the head of school or other upper-level administrators, this is even more dangerous.
Perhaps respected staff and faculty have genuine concerns about administrative leadership, or lack thereof. Or perhaps an otherwise respected head, for all of his or her accolades, proves unable or unwilling to accurately express the community’s feelings on tuition, class sizes, fundraising, and a host of other crucial matters. I suggest that boards hold a community-wide forum several times a year to directly address wider concerns.
To get a more informed take, last week I reached out to Nancy Walser, author of The Essential School Board Book: Better Governance in the Age of Accountability. Walser deals mostly with public schools, but I find that in many cases, independent schools can glean something of value: “Just [invite] the community to come and give input on what should be the goals for that year,” she says. “Or, if they’re going to undertake some long‑range goals, [have] a forum and [ask] people to come and talk about what should be the long‑range goals of the community. You want to engage them, and ultimately, you want them to really have buy‑in on those long‑term goals.”
When parent-trustees do interact with teachers, it’s crucial to have a well-known policy in place for how each party should behave. Boards and administrators should encourage teachers to treat parent-trustees no differently. Furthermore, parent-trustees should know not to grandstand their position to gain preferential treatment for a student.
I recently heard from Susan Johnson, Head of Commonwealth Academy in Alexandria, Virginia. According to Commonwealth’s bylaws, the board consists of one-third current parents, one-third past parents, and one-third local community members.
“I have had the support of each board chair in establishing/maintaining articulated boundaries,” Johnson wrote to me in a recent e-mail. “When dealing with parent board members about their own child, as head I have had to stand firm in holding to those boundaries. In my experience, parents as board members are dedicated to the school and often stay on the board or involved in the school as a ‘thank-you.’”
Walser also provides some sage advice.
“What I tell board members is you have to understand as a parent, when you go into a school, you may say that you’re just a parent, but what you believe, and say, and opine carries special weight and you have to be sensitive to that,” she tells me. “I always used to say with my principal of the school where my kids went, ‘OK, now I’m talking to you with my parent hat on.’”