Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

Module 3 — Roles and Responsibilities

Last updated in November 2019

Roles and Responsibilities
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  • the board of trustees
  • the board chair
  • individual trustees
  • the director of education


Effective school board governance relies on clarity about roles and responsibilities, appropriate structures, and respectful, collaborative behaviour. In practice, this means that everyone understands the roles and responsibilities of the different contributors to the “work” of the school board, including the board of trustees, senior administration, school administration, teachers, education workers, parents/caregivers, and students. Clearly articulated and understood roles and responsibilities provide a structure through which the board of trustees’ goals can be successfully set, monitored and accomplished.

Undertaking a governance role is a commitment to promote the effective functioning of the school board as a whole. The responsibilities described in this module are specific actions the board of trustees, chair of the board, individual trustees and director of education take in meeting their obligations to good governance.


Every school board in Ontario is governed by a board of trustees that is accountable to the public who elected them and/or to the communities they represent as appointed trustees.

There are five types of trustees:

  • Publicly elected trustees comprise the vast majority of trustees of Ontario’s district school boards and isolate boards.
  • First Nation trustees represent First Nations communities who entered into an agreement with a publicly funded Ontario school board to provide education services to Indigenous students.
  • Student trustees are secondary students elected by their peers to represent the voice of students at the board table.
  • Hospital board trustees are appointed by the Minister of Education for a term of four years, on the same term cycle as publicly elected trustees. Hospital boards provide education programs for students in children’s treatment centres.
  • Centre Jules-Léger Consortium is a newly established group composed of six trustees (3 public and 3 Catholic) appointed by the two French-language trustee associations (ACÉPO and AFOCSC) from among their members.
Effective Boards of Trustees

Trustees play a key leadership role in ensuring that schools operate in compliance with the law, and consistent with other standards established by the province, and that programs and services remain responsive to the diverse communities they serve.

Effective boards are both smart and healthy. Smart boards recognize the strengths and weaknesses that their individual members bring to the table. More importantly, these boards can identify when and how to leverage the knowledge, skills and experiences of their members to best serve the interests of students and the community. Healthy boards have a high level of trust and honesty, are clear on each player’s role, and have the courage to recognize negative or unproductive behaviour and come up with a plan for addressing it.


  • Understands why it exists, what difference it aims to make in the community and develops a plan for this purpose
  • Maintains a focus on student achievement and well-being
  • Works together as a team
  • Serves as a role model for the education system and the community
  • Makes informed decisions
  • Strives for excellent communications with its partners and constituents
  • Has a clear sense of the difference between its role and that of senior management
  • Understands the distinction between policy development and implementation
  • Is accountable for its performance
  • Holds the director of education accountable for effectively implementing the policies of the board
  • Monitors the effectiveness of policies and implementation plans
  • Ensures that local provincial and federal politicians understand local issues and needs, and encourages them to make education a high priority.

For other tips and best practices of effective boards, please refer to the Good Governance Guides made available by each school board/trustee association.

Roles and Responsibilities of the Board of Trustees

Under the Education Act, the board as a whole is legally accountable for its decisions, rather than individual trustees, including the chair. In fact, the Act gives no individual authority to trustees. As members of the corporate board, trustees are accountable to the public for the collective decisions of the board and for the delivery and quality of educational services.

Specifically, section 169.1 of the Education Act requires every school board to:

  • Promote student achievement and well-being
  • Promote a positive school climate that is inclusive and accepting of all students
  • Promote the prevention of bullying
  • Ensure effective stewardship of the board’s resources
  • Deliver effective and appropriate education programs to its students
  • Develop and maintain policies and organizational structures that promote the board’s goals, and encourage pupils to pursue their educational goals
  • Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of policies developed by the board in achieving the board’s goals and the efficiency of the implementation of those policies
  • Develop a multi-year plan aimed at achieving the board’s goals
  • Review the multi-year plan with the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education on an annual basis
  • Monitor and evaluate the performance of the board’s director of education, or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education, in meeting their duties under the Act or any policy, guideline or regulation made under the Act, including duties under the multi-year plan, and any other duties assigned by the board

This means that boards are accountable for their fiscal and overall performance, and for the academic achievement of students and the well-being of their students and staff. They are responsible for effectively communicating their performance to parents and the community – both where the board is succeeding, and where the board is struggling to meet expectations, and what steps are being taken to improve outcomes.

Provincial Interest Regulation

In accordance with Ontario Regulation 43/10: Provincial Interest in Education, the Minister may provide for a review of the performance of a school board, if the Minister has concerns regarding the performance of a school board with respect to the following areas:

  • Academic achievement of students
  • Student health and safety
  • Level of cooperation among members of the board and between board and director of education
  • Performance of the board and of the director of education in carrying out their responsibilities under the Education Act
  • Level of parent involvement.

The review process would result in a report to the Minister, and may result in the Minister making recommendations to the board to address concerns identified. The board would be given an opportunity to comment on a draft report before it is submitted to the Minister. If a school board refuses to or does not fully participate in a review process, or refuses to give full and fair consideration to recommended changes arising out of the review, the Minister may consider an investigation of the board pursuant to section 230 of the Act.

As members of their school board, trustees collectively carry out many important duties. These include:

  • Electing a board chair
  • Establishing the board’s mission, vision, and value statements
  • Maintaining a focus on student achievement and well-being
  • Developing and evaluating policies that are operationalized by the director
  • Allocating resources by approving the annual board budget
  • Managing board facilities by setting policies and approving capital plans
  • Ensuring support services are provided
  • Communicating with stakeholders and establishing processes for community input
  • Adhering to policies that address the hiring, transfer, promotion and termination of all board staff
  • Ensuring staff are well supported by setting policies about health and safety, accessibility, etc.
  • Ensuring there are mechanisms in place to recognize students, staff, community members and volunteers
  • Providing advice to the ministry and provincial trustee associations regarding regional and local implications for new policy recommendations
  • Advocating on behalf of and communicating with board communities
  • Striking and maintaining committees as required by legislation/regulation, or as needed locally
  • Filling vacancies on the board

Two of the most important responsibilities that boards of trustees have are:

  • the development and monitoring of the multi-year strategic plan (MYSP)
  • the hiring and performance appraisal of the director of education
Multi-Year Strategic Plan (MYSP)

Under the Education Act, every school board must create a MYSP that spans a minimum of three years. The purpose of the MYSP is to help boards set long-term strategic priorities and goals. The plan must be based on evidence to ensure that it has a clear purpose and that it is effective. It is important that boards use a collaborative process at every step in its development, so that everyone can take ownership of the MYSP and feel responsible for its success.

The MYSP is a visioning and policy document that sets the direction for the board. It is fundamental to ensuring good governance and to building public trust in boards of trustees not only to safeguard our schools, but also to ensure that they are caring, equitable, innovative, and flexible. While schools make every effort to offer stability, they also strive to meet the changing needs and realities of our society. The operational and improvement plans created by the director of education and senior administration are based on the MYSP and map out how it will be implemented.

A strong MYSP addresses the needs of all students and is a driver for positive change in the board and its communities.

For more information about this process, please refer to Module 6 – The Strategic Role and Multi-Year Strategic Planning, which was updated following the release of the Ministry of Education’s publication: Multi-Year Strategic Planning – A Guide for School Board Trustees (2017).

Director of Education – Hiring, Performance Appraisal and Succession Planning

Selecting a new director of education is among the most important decisions a board may make in its term of office. Consistent high-quality leadership from the director of education is a key factor in the success of a school board in meeting its priorities.

Succession planning and talent development in school boards involves supporting aspiring supervisory officers who are passionate and skilled leaders who can effectively support student achievement and well-being at the system level. Talent development encourages supervisory officers to enhance their leadership skills in their current role and supports their preparation should they wish to consider the role of director of education. Boards of trustees are encouraged to continue to refine their recruiting and talent development practices to attract and retain the best candidates for the role of director of education.

When recruiting and selecting a new director, the board should look for the candidate that will most effectively lead the implementation of the board’s strategic plan. To find the right individual, the board should ensure there is an open, professional, confidential and objective competition which invites a broad range of diverse candidates, both internal and external.

Boards of trustees are strongly advised to engage an executive search agency to advise and assist the board with the recruitment and selection process. This allows the board to be fully engaged as governors and direction setters while an outside agency undertakes the planning and detailed work that constitutes an effective search.

Once the director has been hired, the Education Act requires that boards of trustees review their director’s performance. It is strongly recommended that these reviews be conducted annually. The board and the director of education should ensure they have a mutual understanding of the performance outcomes expected. For more information about the performance review process, including guiding principles and best practices, please refer to Module 5 – Performance Review: Director of Education.

Note: The Ontario Education Services Corporation is available to support boards with director of education recruitment and performance appraisal services. Please contact us for more information.


The board chair and vice-chair (if a board chooses) are appointed for one-year terms at the first meeting in December each year. Boards of trustees may choose to have elections for the position of chair and vice-chair by secret ballot or by recorded voting (public). If there is a tied vote, the Education Act requires that it shall be decided by the drawing of lots. The Act does not indicate the number of times that the same person may be elected as chair, however, boards may create a by-law with term limits (for example, 3 consecutive 1 year terms).

As outlined in section 218.4 of the Education Act, the chair of the board shall:

  • Preside over meetings of the board
  • Conduct the meetings in accordance with the board’s procedures and practices
  • 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 strategic 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
Board Meetings

The board chair must be physically present in the meeting room unless the board has a policy allowing the chair to preside over meetings by electronic means. If the board has such a policy in place, the chair may preside over meetings electronically if any of the following applies:

  • The distance between the chair’s residence and the meeting location is 200 kilometres or more
  • Weather conditions do not allow the chair to travel to the meeting safely
  • The chair cannot physically attend the meeting due to health-related issues

No more than half of board meetings for each 12-month period beginning December 1 can be chaired electronically.

The chair may vote on all matters but has only one vote, the same as any other trustee. The chair must adhere to the board’s directions and may not act unilaterally. The chair of the board is also an individual trustee and has no greater rights or powers than any other member of the board other than the above-mentioned additional duties.

The chair may call special meetings of the board and, as the presiding officer, may, at their discretion, have people removed from meetings for improper conduct. This includes trustees as well as members of the public.

To run effective meetings, a chair should have a basic knowledge of the rules of parliamentary procedure and the board’s procedural by-laws (refer to Module 12 – Running Effective Meetings for more information). A chair should ensure that all relevant information has been provided to trustees and to the public and provide opportunities for and encourage all members to speak in an open debate.

A chair should also be able to manage conflict effectively, ensure that issues are separated from individuals and lead the board as a team to help it reach its decisions. To learn more, please refer to Module 8 – Conflict: Managing it Creatively.

The chair must keep in mind that their vote is one among many and that the process of decision-making aims to capture the view of the whole board rather than allowing any individual’s view to dominate.

For more information about the role of the chair, please refer to Module 15 – What Makes a Great Board Chair?


A clear understanding of an individual trustee’s role and responsibilities is fundamental to good governance. A school board trustee is a member of a board, and as such, trustees cannot act unilaterally.

As the representatives in their local jurisdiction, trustees are required to listen to the concerns and needs of their communities, bring them to the attention of the board, and ensure that programs and strategies of the board help all students. It is through the process of collaborating and engaging in joint decision-making as members of the board that trustees work to translate the values, priorities, and expectations of the community into policy.

As required under section 218.1 of the Education Act, individual school board trustees shall:

  • Carry out his or her responsibilities in a manner that assists the board in fulfilling its duties under this Act, and the regulations and the guidelines issued under this Act
  • Attend and participate in meetings of the board, including meetings of board committees of which he or she is a member
  • Consult with parents, students and supporters of the board on the board’s multi-year plan
  • Bring concerns of parents, students and supporters of the board to the attention of the board
  • Uphold the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board
  • Entrust the day-to-day management of the board to its staff through the board’s director of education
  • Maintain focus on student achievement and well-being
  • Comply with the board’s code of conduct

Once the board of trustees has voted, individual trustee members are bound by the majority decision, regardless of whether they supported it during debate or voted against it. They are required to uphold the implementation of resolutions passed by the board. Although they may not agree with the decision, trustees should be able to explain the rationale for the policy and ensure that it is understood, implemented, and monitored. Trustees who wish to explain a school board decision should do so in this context and express any divergence in their personal views in a manner that respects the decision-making authority of the collective board. In this way trustees carry a dual responsibility – as a representative of their area and as a member of the board.

Individual trustees interpret the role of representing their community in different ways. What all trustees have in common is serving the community as elected representatives while focusing on the primary task of acting as members of a board that makes policy decisions, oversees curriculum and program delivery, and fulfils its responsibilities as an employer.

Trustees bring a range of skills, experience, knowledge, values, beliefs, and opinions to their role. Their background does not necessarily include teaching, administration, or any other aspect of education. This diversity can support processes to be democratic and can contribute to good decision-making. The board must balance the interests of the broader community with the best interests of all students in the board.

Trustees also act as education advocates at various levels. At the local level, they work on behalf of the community and must consider the unique needs of their communities when deciding what position to take on any issue. The trustee’s role as an education advocate often extends beyond the boundaries of the district school board. In the broader public domain, trustees are education advocates throughout the province and work with the provincial government in the shared interest of publicly funded education. They may liaise with members of the provincial government, the school system, and with local organizations or individuals in the community.

More information about the role of the school board trustee can be found in the specific guide created for interested candidates called, “Making A Difference For Kids: Running for Election as a School Board Trustee.” For more information about trustee codes of conduct, please refer to Module 17 - Trustee Code of Conduct. The Good Governance Guides developed by the trustee associations are also a good source of information on professional development opportunities, trustee honoraria and trustee expenditures.


The director of education is the chief executive officer and chief education officer of the school board and acts as secretary of the board. The Education Act requires each board to appoint a treasurer. In boards of not more than five elected members, one of the members may serve as treasurer. However, in larger boards, the director of education often also serves as the treasurer of the board. The director of education may delegate the treasurer role to a qualified staff member.

Every school board must hire only a qualified supervisory officer as its director of education and obtain the Minister’s confirmation that the person to be appointed is eligible for the position.

The director of education is the sole employee who reports directly to the board of trustees, usually through the chair or their delegate. All school board staff report either directly or indirectly to the director of education.

Through the director of education, a school board holds all of its schools accountable for improving student achievement and well-being, providing an equitable and inclusive environment and enhancing public confidence in publicly funded education, based on expectations set at the provincial and board levels.

As outlined in sections 283 and 283.1 of the Education Act, directors of education shall:

  • develop and maintain an effective organization and the programs required to implement board policies
  • annually review the multi-year plan with the board of trustees
  • ensure that the multi-year plan establishes the board’s priorities and identifies specific measures and resources that will be applied in achieving those priorities and in carrying out its duties under the Act
  • implement and monitor the implementation of the multi-year plan
  • report periodically to the board on the implementation of the multi-year plan
  • act as secretary to the board
  • immediately upon discovery bring to the attention of the board any act or omission by the board that in the opinion of the director of education may result in or has resulted in a contravention of this Act or any policy, guideline or regulation made under this Act; and
  • if a board does not respond in a satisfactory manner to an act or omission brought to its attention under clause (f), advise the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of the act or omission

This means that directors of education carry out many important duties, including managing all facets of school board operations, maintaining a positive and productive relationship with the board of trustees, and reporting to the board and ministry. For example, the director is also responsible for providing an annual report to the Minister. Section 283(3) of the Education Act requires that reports be submitted at the first meeting of the board of trustees each year in December. Posting on the board’s website, on or before January 31 of each year, will satisfy the requirement to submit the report to the Minister.

Distinction between the Board of Trustees and the Director of Education

It is important to note that the Act distinguishes between a board’s responsibility for policy development and the responsibility of the director of education for operationalizing policies. It is important that the board of trustees be clear about roles and responsibilities and determine, through policy, which matters are operational and therefore addressed by the director, and which matters are policy and, therefore, decided on by the board.

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