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Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program


Module 4 — Common Ground, Common Purpose: Key Relationships in School Boards

Last updated in September 2019
Common Ground, Common Purpose: Relationships in School Boards
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IN THIS MODULE, TRUSTEES WILL EXPLORE:

  • their role in forming positive and productive board relationships
  • key relationships, including those between:
    • the board of trustees and the director of education
    • the board of trustees and senior school board staff
    • the chair and the director of education
    • the chair and members of the board
    • the board of trustees and its constituents

INTRODUCTION

Boards of trustees do a great deal of work in establishing values that show the world what makes their board’s schools unique. These are vital in working out the relationships that are the underpinning of effective school board governance. The following values are representative of those adopted by many school boards: citizenship, cooperation, courage, empathy, fairness, honesty, humility, inclusiveness, initiative, integrity, kindness, optimism, perseverance, resilience, respect, and responsibility. In addition, Catholic school boards have affirmed the virtues of: faith, hope, love, community, dignity of persons, excellence, justice and stewardship for creation.

Through their codes of conduct, boards of trustees have also enshrined values that guide ethical behaviour and norms for relationships among board members.

Effective organizations are built on strong and trusting relationships that incorporate these values.

INDIVIDUAL TRUSTEES: KNOW YOURSELF

As an individual, you bring to your work qualities, talents, and characteristics that will enable you to fulfill the responsibilities you undertook when you were elected to office. These individual and unique experiences contribute to a better-rounded team. In taking on this leadership role in public education, you commit yourself to a path of continuous learning and skill acquisition so that you can contribute effectively and creatively to governing a school system that promotes student achievement and well-being. In the process, you have the reward of doing enriching, personally rewarding work in a climate where your contribution is valued.

A good place to begin involves examining your beliefs, values, strengths and limitations so that you are very clear who you are in this role and what you stand for. This examination also involves being clear about the strengths you have to draw on and being aware of the skills you need to hone.

To become a trustee meant running for election and gaining the support of your constituents for the values you represent and the issues you consider vital to a successful publicly funded education system. The convictions you articulate are what make people choose you as a leader.

If you are a First Nations trustee appointed by your community to the local school board, your appointment also arises from the confidence that you will be a strong representative of your community. Similarly, student trustees are elected by their peers to be the strong and positive voice of students at the board table.

In preparing yourself to be a member of a school board, the common ground you share with your constituents strengthens your capacity to take your community’s issues forward to the larger board, and authentically represent them.

A COLLABORATIVE COLLECTIVE

“The best boards work together as a team, capitalizing on the strengths that each member brings to the table and demanding full engagement by everyone….Board members function most effectively together when they understand what each can contribute and they challenge each other to bring their best. This requires mutual respect and trust. And this takes time. It also involves clarifying the expectations that board members have of each other and correcting each other when those expectations are breached.”[1]

A board of trustees is a collectivity of members who are more effective when they are working together as a cohesive whole. The personality, values, beliefs, and strengths of each trustee influence how the board works.

Even if the municipal election results in a change of only one member from the previous board, there is still a whole new board because every individual matters in the dynamics and balance of strengths of the board.

Just as it is important for the individual trustee to be clear about their own values, strengths and limitations, it is equally vital to the effectiveness of the board for the members to understand these characteristics in each other. This requires real discussions about ethics and values through which each member of the board demonstrates who they are and “where they are coming from”. It then becomes possible to build a collective board where there is strong mutual understanding and shared values. This is what enables effective decision-making that works for the whole board and for the entire school system.

During a debate about a difficult or controversial decision, the path to agreement is much smoother if everyone around the table understands the values that drive their colleagues, has direct experience of the integrity of their voice, and knows where they are coming from. An effective board of trustees invests time and commitment in building a team. Trustees bring their personal convictions to every discussion. This dynamic is essential in an environment where the legal decision-making authority resides with the group. Contributing to the achievement of a common decision through mutually respectful discussion is how the individual demonstrates effective and ethical leadership.

Taking the knowledge gleaned from a personal review of strengths, limitations and values and sharing this in a full-group session with fellow trustees builds the capacity to work effectively as a group. Bringing differing perspectives, insights and opinions together can create solutions that are deeper and richer and, most importantly, owned by everyone. The outcome is a team of trustees who are members of the board, not members at the board.

The board as a whole has to take responsibility to resolve potentially dysfunctional situations and strive to build dynamics that demonstrate a commitment to:

  • collaborative decision-making
  • completing the work required and sharing responsibility
  • contributing to public meetings in a way that earns public confidence in the work of the board
  • placing the good of the school system before individual political agendas
  • focusing equally on assessing the value of initiatives as well as controlling costs
  • be open-minded to the views of fellow board members

It has to be acknowledged as well that there are board members who exhibit counter-productive approaches and may not realize they are creating difficulties for the board as a whole. The first recourse of a leader – and every trustee is a leader – is to assume the best intent when considering another person’s motivations. Wherever possible a colleague-to-colleague approach is desirable. A private conversation that focuses less on the problem and more on the areas of strength and expertise that the board member could be contributing can be helpful. Taking opportunities to ask board members for their opinions in situations where they can shine is another positive response. It is always productive to listen actively and sincerely. It is never productive to characterize the issue in personal terms. If dysfunctional behaviour persists to the detriment of the effectiveness of the board, a trustee may wish to discuss the issue with the chair of the board. The final resort may be to refer to the board’s Code of Conduct policy.

While someone who is persistently dissident can negatively impact the effectiveness of the board, dissidence itself can actually be very productive and has its place in board dynamics. Dissenting views provoke all those involved to greater clarity about the positions they are advancing. Dissidents can make sure that the debate, and the information provided as a context for the debate, is comprehensive and well-thought-out. They also create an opportunity for “sober second thought” or for those who shared the ideas contrary to what was being proposed and were reluctant to speak up. It can deter the negative effects of “group think” and stem the tendency to yield to consensus at the cost of considering alternative and ultimately better courses of action. Finally, dissenters can crystallize the alignment of support for the opposing view. To public onlookers, they make it clear that the discussions at the board table are democratic.

For many of the examples given above, a common feature is that no one is “shut down”. It is important for the credibility of the board of trustees and for the quality of the decisions that are made, that value is placed on having mechanisms of dissent. Every trustee, regardless of the minority position of the view, or the apparent negative motivation for voicing it, is entitled to take a diverging position.

Davis Campbell and Michael Fullan’s, The Governance Core captures this nicely by saying, “effective governance requires that adults, on behalf of the children they serve, find avenues of agreement, so that they can govern the district in an effective manner.”[2]

TRUSTEE CODE OF CONDUCT

A Code of Conduct serves to define acceptable and respectful behaviours, clarify the rules of civil engagement, promote high standards of practice, and provide a framework for professional conduct and responsibilities. The Education Act authorizes boards to adopt a Code of Conduct for trustees [s.218.2] and provides an enforcement mechanism for boards to enforce their Code of Conduct at the local level.

As of May 15, 2019, all school boards are required to adopt a Code of Conduct for trustees. Under Ontario Regulation 246/18: Members of School Boards – Code of Conduct, all trustee codes of conduct must be made available to the public and must be reviewed by May 15 every fourth year thereafter. The board’s review compels boards to determine if changes to the code are required, or if no changes are required, confirm the existing Code of Conduct.

For more information, including the components of an effective Code of Conduct, please refer to Module 17 — Developing a Code of Conduct for Trustees.

KEY RELATIONSHIPS

The Board of Trustees and the Director of Education

The board of trustees and the director of education are partners together in leading a school system that is the heart of the community. It is critical that they have a positive, productive and mutually-supportive working relationship. This relationship unites the wisdom of the electorate with the expertise and advice of trained professionals.

The foundation of a positive working relationship between the board and the director of education is clarity on roles and responsibilities (see Module 3 — Right from the Start: Roles and Responsibilities). The engine that drives the relationship from that point is open, direct, two-way communication based on mutual trust. The board and the director need to have a mutual agreement about how they communicate with each other. How and how often will the director report to the board and convey information to the board and individual board members? How will the board request reports and direct the flow of information it wishes to have? The answers to these questions must be determined by the entire board and the director, and ideally become a matter of policy, protocol and guidelines.

As partners who have worked together on the board’s vision, mission and multi-year strategic plan, the members of the board and the director have laid the groundwork for moving forward in the same direction and have built the capacity to inspire the confidence of the community. It is essential, therefore, that they speak with one voice and rely on one spokesperson to convey their key messages to the public. And it is critically important that they understand each other’s roles and responsibilities.

The Board of Trustees and Senior Staff

The director of education is the sole employee of and reports directly to the board of trustees. Assignment of duties to board staff flows through the director as does information from board staff to the board of trustees. School boards may have practices that provide for direct communications between trustees and senior staff. In these cases, it is important to have a policy and/or clearly understood lines of communication that guide these interactions. The director considers the system as a whole and needs to be kept informed of such communications. This avoids duplication of effort as the information may already have been prepared or shared by someone else. It ensures that the information is offered in a fully-rounded board perspective. It also allows for sharing the information with the board of trustees as a whole where this is useful and relevant.

The Chair and the Director of Education

Each year, the board of trustees chooses one of their members as a leader. The role is defined in some detail by the Education Act [s.218.4], which establishes expectations for the chair’s role in relation to the members of the board, to the director of education and to the board’s public. In addition, there are aspects of the role determined by the board of trustees that further define the expected relationship between the chair and colleague trustees.

As leaders, the chair and director of education will need to communicate frequently to discuss many matters including:

  • items to be placed on the board agenda, the order or sequence of agenda items and what board action is recommended for each item
  • what role the director will play at board meetings and how senior staff and outside consultants may participate in board meetings
  • the kinds of reports the director will give to the board and the role of the chair in conveying the decisions of the board to the director
  • how to handle emergency situations that might arise
  • dealings with the media and the role of the chair as spokesperson for the board
The Chair and Members of the Board

There is a strong collegial relationship between the chair and the members of the board. In electing a fellow trustee to this leadership position, they are placing confidence in the chair to facilitate the board in its work. They expect that the chair will:

  • ensure that they have the information needed for informed discussion of the agenda items
  • share with them in a timely way relevant information that comes to the chair’s office on emerging issues that affect schools and the community
  • provide leadership and focus with regard to the board’s mission, vision, multi-year plan and policy-making
  • collaborate with colleague board members around the role of board spokesperson (e.g. issues where particular board members have specific expertise)
  • set a tone for board meetings that stimulates respect and focussed discussion on the issues
  • ensure that meetings are run effectively and that all voices are heard
  • be impartial in handling the business of the board and in professional relationships with all trustees
  • maintain the confidence of all colleague trustees
  • provide leadership in the professional development of board members and ensure regular review of the effectiveness of the collective board (e.g., board self-assessment)
  • where appropriate, provide leadership in fostering positive relationships between the board and the director and senior staff
The Board and its Constituents

A key responsibility of the board of trustees is to represent the public’s voice in publicly funded education and incorporate the community’s vision in the board’s goals for student achievement and well-being. This relationship requires effective, transparent and accessible mechanisms for involving community members in advising the board as it makes policies and develops strategic plans.

The Education Act requires a board to make most of its meetings public. The board of trustees can achieve the collective aim of promoting public understanding of and confidence in the school system by encouraging attendance at board meetings and highlighting the issues that will be discussed. The board can be proactive in letting the community know if something particularly important or controversial is coming up through a variety of communication means. It can make background information available to the public and where appropriate, hold public information meetings. When the board proves itself to be a credible source for information about difficult issues, the public is more likely to listen when the board wants to share its good news.

Beyond the public interactions available through board meetings, the board can build more sustained relationships with the community through inviting their membership on school councils, parent involvement committees and encouraging dialogue through formal liaison and advisory groups, such as the Special Education Advisory Committee.

In its relationship and its communications with the public, the board should always be:

  • honest
  • clear
  • calm
  • alert
  • prepared
  • proactive

All board constituents need and have a right to know about what children are learning and how well they are learning. They also have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and a right to participate in discussions on the allocation of education resources in their community.

What Boards of Trustees Should Know About Their Communities

Individual trustees may be very knowledgeable about the profile of their particular community. However, to be effective as a contributing decision-maker at the board table, it is important to have a broad perspective on the issues that affect the entire public within the collective board’s jurisdiction, such as demographic information, knowledge of issues affecting the local economy, or the views of employers about what students need to know. This information has a bearing on the development of policies and the creation of the multi-year strategic plan. It is important in helping the board to communicate and establish authentic relationships with diverse community groups, and remain accountable.

At the start of the term of office, most school boards provide an in-depth orientation session for trustees to acquaint them with roles, relationships and responsibilities within the board and to provide an overview of the specific environment of the school board.

NOTES


  1. The Imperfect Board Member: Discovering the Seven Disciplines of Governance Excellence, Jim Brown, 2016

  2. Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together, Davis Campbell, Michael Fullan, 2019