“Governing well is no easy task. It takes knowledge, skill and experience. It takes courage and character. And it takes teamwork, in the sense of everyone bringing their unique talents and backgrounds to work together for the best interests of the people the board serves.”
While school board governance outlines how the board of trustees operates to make and implement its decisions, effective governance relies on clarity about roles and responsibilities, appropriate structures and respectful and collaborative behaviour. Effective boards are both smart and healthy. Smart boards are composed of people with individual and collective competence that complement the strengths and weaknesses of the board’s members. Healthy boards have a high level of trust and honesty, clarity around roles and determination to subordinate members’ personal interests to serve the interests of students and the district as a whole.
In Module #1, Effective Governance through Ethical Leadership, trustees are invited to explore a 360˚ view of four multi-layered and interdependent roles of school boards. These roles incorporate:
Undertaking these governance roles is a commitment to promote the effective functioning of the school board as a whole. The responsibilities described in this module are the specific actions the elected board takes in meeting its obligations to good governance.
In practice, good school board governance specifies the distribution of rights and responsibilities among the different contributors to the “work” of the school board: board of trustees, senior administration, school administration, teachers, parents, students. In doing this, good governance will provide a structure through which the elected board’s objectives are set, as well as identify a plan to attain those objectives, and measure the school board’s performance in doing so.
“The secret to effectiveness is understanding the different roles within an organization and how those roles relate.”
In broad terms, it is the role of the elected board to:
More specifically, the elected board, as a representative of the people is a decision maker, one that integrates the information from all the forces which impact on the board, processes that information, evaluates it and makes a decision compatible with the board’s beliefs, values and knowledge. The board of trustees keeps in mind the interests of all students within the school board district rather than the interest of a few students in a particular school or geographical area.
The elected board is responsible for setting the overall direction for the school system. This is done through a multi-year strategic planning process that is reviewed annually. Through the strategic plan, the vision, mission, values and beliefs are revisited and strategic priorities or goals are determined. The board of trustees also provides direction through its policy processes. These include planning, developing implementing and evaluating policy. The annual budget also reflects the approved directions of the elected board in the way resources are allocated to schools and programs.
The board of trustees, through the director of education, its sole employee, holds the system accountable for achieving the results established through its planning process. It does this by establishing roles and responsibilities for the results at various levels throughout the organization, and then by establishing a monitoring and evaluation system whereby reports are made to the board on a regular basis. The elected board then reports to the public and the province about system and school performance.
A school trustee is a member of a team – the board of trustees. Only the board of trustees has the authority to make decisions or to take action; an individual trustee in and of him or herself does not have this authority. Amendments to the Education Act clarify that the role of the trustee includes assisting the elected board to fulfill its duties under the Act and bringing the concerns of parents, students and supporters of the board to the attention of the board. While this community representative role is not directly a governance role, governance is at its most effective when it embraces the community perspectives brought by the individual trustees. Indeed proactive community participation is a crucial part of good governance by the board. The key is achieving balance between the governance authority of the board of trustees as a whole, and the individual representative role each trustee also fulfills. While members of the board of trustees act as representatives of their constituency, their primary job is to participate in policy-making and strategic planning that is in the interests of all of the school board’s students and is grounded in promoting student achievement and well-being. Successful trustees manage to balance the governance role with the representative role, participating in decision-making that benefits the whole board while representing the interests of their constituents.
The constituency role is a key and personal interface between trustees and the public they serve. The personal nature of the communications at this level is part of the daily life of a trustee and can be both rewarding and demanding. When constituents call they are usually seeking solutions to a particular issue related to a student or a school. Trustees need to be aware of the steps they can take to clarify or help solve the issue. With the support of the elected board, the director identifies processes that trustees can follow to bring forward the concerns of the individual constituent. Resolution or clarification is often achieved through referral to the appropriate member of the director’s team of senior staff. All matters will need to be considered within the context of the board’s policies and the procedures that flow from them. When a trustee feels the issue is of such a nature that it needs to be brought before the board of trustees at a board meeting, it is important to be aware that the matter then belongs to the whole board and all board members have a collective responsibility to consider it. Once a decision is made, individual members are required to uphold and respect the board’s decision.
In addition to the provisions in the Education Act already mentioned, there are other stipulated duties for individual members of the school board and these are addressed in the Responsibilities section of the module. (See page 8). It is important to note that regulatory changes made in 2009 clarify that First Nation trustees who are appointed to the board to represent the interests of the First Nation students are considered elected members of the board, with all the rights and responsibilities of the position.
The chair is chosen by the board of trustees as someone they are proud to have as a leader who represents them. The term of office of the board chair is for one year. The chair normally acts as the main spokesperson for the board and must deal with the community and the media, as well as with other trustees and the board administration. Amendments to the Education Act have, for the first time, clarified in law these aspects of the role of chair and specific duties will be explored in the Responsibilities section of the module.
The chair of the board is also an individual trustee and, as an individual, has no greater rights or powers than any other member of the board. However, the members of the board, as a whole, in electing one of their peers to be the chair of the board confer on her or him a leadership role. Although the chair assumes a leadership role, he or she must adhere to the board’s directions and may not act unilaterally. The chair has a legislated responsibility to set the agenda for meetings in consultation with the director of education. This is most effectively done with input from other trustees. The chair works closely with the director to ensure that the wishes of the board of trustees are understood, and works with the elected board to present and clarify any concerns of the administration.
In broad terms, it is the role of the director of education to display excellence as an educational leader, to be politically sophisticated, to be aware of and active in legislative developments, to have an extensive knowledge of relevant provincial laws, to be an exemplary educator, and to personify effective communication.
Under the Education Act the director is the “chief education officer” and “chief executive officer” and is required to “develop and maintain an effective organization and programs required to implement board policies” (s. 283).
The board of trustees is responsible for the recruitment, selection and performance evaluation of the director of education. The board of trustees should establish a policy that defines the division of responsibility between the board as the governing body that sets policy and broad directions and the director of education as chief education officer/chief executive officer who leads, executes and monitors activities on behalf of the board of trustees. The director of education and the board of trustees work in partnership to develop and attain the vision, mission, strategic goals and priorities of the school board. The decisions of the elected board on policy and budget, together with the development of the board’s strategic plan, are the basis for the director’s work and accountability.
The elected board’s most influential governance relationship is the relationship they have with the director of education. In effect the director of education is the sole employee who reports directly to the elected board. A trusting, respectful and cooperative relationship between the board of trustees and the director of education and a mutual understanding of their distinct roles lead to effective policy implementation. When elected boards have questions or issues about policy implementation, they address those questions or issues first through the director of education.
Effective school boards will have a policy that sets out job descriptions for the elected board, the chair, the vice-chair and the director of education. These job descriptions should be aligned and complementary, with the board job description focusing on governance responsibilities and the director’s job description focusing on support to the board and responsibilities for implementation.
Elected school boards have a dual accountability; they are accountable to the public who elected them and they are accountable to the Ministry of Education. Various sections of the Education Act set out more than one hundred duties and powers of elected school boards. These provisions are very specific and cover such matters as the duty to provide special education programs and services or the duty to establish a school council for each school. However, amendments to the Education Act have articulated the responsibilities of school boards in terms of broad accountabilities that essentially describe the key work of the elected board:
The following template offers a “job description” of the elected school board. It incorporates provisions of the Education Act. It is vital for the board of trustees to be clear about the alignment between its job as a governing policy-making body and the job of director of education as the chief executive officer who implements the directions of the board. In essence, the elected board should be clear about what its policies are, why they exist, be able to explain them to the public and hold the director of education accountable for implementing them.
This sample job description can be a basis for the dialogue and decision-making that clarifies the respective responsibilities of the elected board and the director of education:
Accountability for Student Achievement and Well-being
Accountability to the Provincial Government
Accountability to the Community
System Leadership and Planning
Policy Development, Implementation and Evaluation
Director/District School Board Relations
Political Advocacy and Communication
The director is hired by and responsible to the locally elected school board. However, the director also has accountability to the Ministry to ensure compliance with provincial statute and curriculum. This aspect of the role has been further defined in amendments to the Education Act.
The director is the sole employee who reports directly to the elected board. All authority delegated by the elected board to staff is delegated through the director of education.
The following template offers a job description for the role of director of education. It incorporates the most recent provisions of the Education Act. This resource parallels the job description of the elected board in the dialogue and decision-making that clarifies the respective responsibilities of the board of trustees and the director of education:
Student Achievement and Well-being
Communications and Community Relations
Student, Staff and District Recognition/Public Relations
The introduction of this Regulation underscores the importance for boards of regularly evaluating the effectiveness of their governance practices.
On February 26, 2010, the Provincial Interest Regulation (PIR) was enacted. This regulation sets out actions that can be taken by the Minister of Education if the Minister has concerns about a school board in one or more of the following areas:
The regulation enables the Minister to appoint one or more persons to undertake a review of the board with respect to the area(s) of concern.
Upon completion of the review, the individual(s) appointed write a report. The board has an opportunity to review and comment on the report.
The report and the board’s comments are then submitted to the Minister. After consideration of the report and the board’s comments, the Minister makes comments or recommendations to the board.
The board must give full and fair consideration to these comments and advise on how it is going to take these comments into account, particularly with respect to the board’s multi-year plan.
The PIR provides that the only circumstances which could lead to consideration of board supervision are if a board refuses to or does not fully participate in the review process, or refuses to give full and fair consideration to recommended changes arising out of the review.
A trustee’s job is to maintain a focus on student achievement and well-being and to participate in making decisions that benefit the entire board district while representing the interests of his or her constituents. Trustees must also interpret the views and decisions of the elected board in their reporting back to their constituents. As noted in the earlier section on the role of trustee, the interface between a trustee and his or her constituents can be both rewarding and demanding. It is important that trustees are aware of the support and advice available from the director of education and senior staff and are familiar with board policies that may apply to issues under discussion between the trustees and their constituents.
The job description of the elected board sets out the responsibilities that a trustee, as a member of the collective board, is required to undertake. Again, the Education Act has been amended to further clarify the responsibilities of the individual trustee or board member:
As required by the Education Act the board of trustees elects a chair from among its members to serve a term of one year. The most recent amendments to the Act set out, for the first time, specific duties for this role:
preside over meetings of the board;
conduct the meetings in accordance with the board’s procedures and practices for the conduct of board meetings;
establish agendas for board meetings, in consultation with the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education;
ensure that members of the board have the information needed for informed discussion of the agenda items;
act as spokesperson to the public on behalf of the board, unless otherwise determined by the board;*
convey the decisions of the board to the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education;
provide leadership to the board in maintaining the board’s focus on the multi-year plan;
provide leadership to the board in maintaining the board’s focus on the board’s mission and vision;
assume such other responsibilities as may be specified by the board.*
Clarity of roles is a vital key to effective governance and it will be important for the board to discuss and come to consensus on specific responsibilities they wish the chair to undertake on their behalf. Key considerations, for example, will be any division of responsibilities around the role of public spokesperson for the board and expectations on the flow of communications between the chair and the board of trustees.
Please see Module 15 “What Makes a Great Board Chair” for more information.
Effective practices of many school boards in Ontario were relied upon in the development of this module. This is gratefully acknowledged by OESC-CSEO.
Jim Brown, The Imperfect Board Member, 2006 ⤴
See also What do school boards do?, Alberta School Boards’ Association: http://www.asba.ab.ca/files/pdf/trustee-handbook/what-school-boards-do.pdf ⤴
From OESC documents developed through discussions with many individual school boards in Ontario. ⤴
From OESC documents developed through discussions with many individual school boards in Ontario. ⤴