By Carrie Irvin
Opening a great new school is a huge challenge. It’s complicated under the best of circumstances, but starting a school also includes so many tasks outside the experience of even veteran educators.
One of the most foundational, and often overlooked, aspects of starting a good school is a good board. Many school founders have worked for a nonprofit board, which makes this aspect of school start-up especially challenging. Governance is often sticky–it’s not intuitive, it involves a frequently shifting cast of characters with their own personalities and preferences, board members are busy volunteers and strong school heads don’t always welcome more voices at the leadership table.
However, for public charter schools, a strong board can be the difference between a good school and an extraordinary school—and since there is abundant research telling us that schools that start off wobbly generally stay wobbly, there is huge incentive to build a strong board from the start. A strong board cannot be an afterthought or treated as a marginal issue.
Nicole Assisi, who helped launch High Tech High, DaVinci Schools in LA, and Thrive Public Schools in San Diego, said school leaders who are heads-down opening a school shouldn’t forget to manage up, even as they are still in the planning stages. “Yes, the board will be your boss, but managing up is an important skill many leaders forget about.” She encourages school heads to “create expectations, roles and responsibilities early,” and “refer to these roles often to clear your path for successful work.”
Here are seven tips:
- Focus from the very beginning on building a governing board, not a “friends and family” board. Think strategically about board composition–make sure the board includes all relevant skill sets, including more than one person in key areas to give the board depth. Bring on people who can give you really sound and experienced advice–you couldn’t afford to pay people like that, but you can get that kind of advice, guidance and support from your board. Don’t seek rubber stampers! You want tough questions and push back from a smart and engaged board–you will make better decisions.
- Seek out good resources and training for your board–there is plenty out there so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. And invest time in recruiting and onboarding your board members, even though you’ll feel like you don’t have that time.
- Invest in building formal good governance processes and structures, and follow them. It’s not optional–good governance really matters for compliance, for engagement, for allowing different perspectives to be heard and for keeping the board in the governance lane and out of micromanagement, while still allowing and encouraging board members to make valuable concrete contributions.
- Don’t limit the board’s role to fundraising and facilities. You need your board by your side and to have your back, including during those tough early years. Think of it as a partnership–a great school needs both a strong leader and a strong board to be great and to sustain greatness over time.
- Make sure the board is involved and engaged and knows what’s going on. Proactively tell the board everything important that’s happening, especially what’s keeping you up at night. If you don’t trust the board with sensitive or difficult information, you have the wrong board. The board chair should be your first call when you have a problem or something goes awry, not the call you go to great lengths to avoid making.
- It’s critical that boards be aware of particularly sensitive issues involved with running a school, and be informed and prepared to handle these. In preparation for a school opening, the board, district or charter, should be familiar with state laws that protect individuals from discrimination, particularly students with disabilities, English language learners, or students who come from economically disadvantaged families. Board members need to ensure that their schools are adequately serving students within these categories and must be aware of laws governing their education. Board members should ensure that their schools are in compliance with civil rights laws and must be aware of the role they may play in addressing disciplinary issues.
- For charter boards, it’s important for boards to always know what promises the school made in its charter, when the charter is up for renewal, what it will take to gain renewal and under what circumstances the school can be closed (at least thirteen states have default closure laws).
Bad things can happen when schools don’t have a good board. At best, the school misses out on valuable leadership, guidance, resources, and support. At worst, boards jeopardize the success of the school, overlook/fail to prevent missteps and wrongdoing or engage in illegal or unethical behaviors.
Avoid the trauma of a bad board proactively by thinking about your board as a critical part of the infrastructure of the school—just as every school needs a building, and needs teachers, every good public charter school needs a good board.
Invest in good governance from the beginning; don’t wait till you run into a problem and then try to remediate it. Good boards matter, and ultimately students will reap the benefits.
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