A well-designed board of trustees is like any successful group in that it needs a common purpose that is well defined, a variety of skill sets and experiences that complement each other, and a strong chief executive to partner with. Further, trustees need a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and especially of what areas of the school they should not be tinkering with. Paraphrasing from Jim Collins’ Good to Great, schools need to get the right people on the bus and sitting in the right seat.
During this time of the pandemic, we’ve seen that high-pressure situations tend to expose flaws and widen fundamental cracks in weaker organizations. Stronger institutions tend to stand out with their ability to weather almost any storm. A highly capable and effectively functioning board of trustees is one critical determinant of a school’s strength. And even in the situations where schools have strong boards, I believe the Covid-19 crisis taught us that every aspect of an organization can improve, or at least adapt to new realities.
The opportunity to reassess, reorganize and invigorate a school’s board of trustees coming out of this crisis is huge. This is, therefore, the time to implement new ideas and throw out the practices that did not work in the past. Toward that end, I would like to present two specific recommendations for constructing and operating boards of trustees for Jewish day schools going forward.
A well-designed board should have three standing committees: governance, finance and strategic planning. Almost every responsibility of a Jewish day school trustee can be found in one of these three areas, and every trustee should be assigned to one or more of these committees. It is through a strong committee structure and management that the optimal amount of support from the board can be generated.
In the governance area—I believe the most important of the three—the committee members should be responsible for identifying, onboarding and assessing trustees. This committee also should oversee the charters and bylaws for the board and its committees. When a governance committee (sometimes referred to as a committee on trustees) is fully empowered, it can bring the most talented and capable people onto the school’s board, guide them with the appropriate expectations and then provide feedback as to the trustees’ effectiveness.
Ensuring the school has the requisite financial resources to operate and be sustainable is the primary responsibility of a finance committee. This group of trustees should work with the head of the school and her administrative team when presented with annual budgets and longer-term financial plans. Trustees with strong finance or accounting backgrounds should form the core, but there is value in having a more diverse set of trustees participate as well. This cognitive diversity is particularly valuable when it comes to long-term projections.
Creating and overseeing the school’s strategic plan is one of the most important trustee responsibilities. In an ideal world, every school would have a three- to five-year strategic plan that is developed and updated annually. Exiting this pandemic, this kind of a strategic plan is likely to be even more valuable than it was just one year ago.
There are, of course, other committees that can and should occasionally be created for trustees. These should, in my view, be more temporary in nature as their existence tends to create an incentive for board members to wander into areas that are best left for the administration. Now is the time for a school to eliminate committees that oversee any compensation for employees other than the head of school. Now is the time for Jewish day school boards to step back from regular involvement with implementing fundraising programs or curriculum. The board is not a place to discuss how the fifth grade English teacher is handling students with learning differences, nor for conversations about individual staff members’ employment prospects.
During a crisis, as we have seen for the past 12 months, it is all-hands-on-deck and totally fine to throw best practices out the window in order to ensure a school’s sustainability. But as we exit the crisis mode, the time is coming to bring those best practices back—or establish them for the first time. Starting with the governance committee that can identify, recruit and orient new trustees is a great way to begin. I would argue that having this governance structure in place will make the school more attractive to community members without students in the school, who might otherwise not consider serving on the school’s board.
According to the recently released pulse survey of Jewish day schools, more than 75% of their boards meet between eight and 16 times each year. This level of meeting frequency is, in my opinion, way too often, as it leads to three problems. It prevents talented people from agreeing to serve on the board because of excess time commitments, it leads to meetings with content that is not appropriate for the board to consider, and it unnecessarily diverts the administration team to prepare for the meetings when they could be more focused on running the school.
It was certainly the case that when the crisis first hit in March of 2020, boards increased the frequency of their meetings to deal with a rapidly developing and unprecedented situation. The schools that were able to navigate the early phases of the crisis did so because of the coordination of the board and its head of school and the abilities of those boards to gather the resources necessary. Monthly meeting schedules became weekly ones; quarterly schedules morphed into monthlies. It is during a crisis that a board can truly leverage its backgrounds, skill sets and networks to do what is needed for the school.
The crisis period of school management is subsiding, and we are now beginning to emerge into a new normal. Boards should consider reverting back to their primary responsibilities now, if they haven’t already done so, of strategic planning, ensuring the availability of financial resources and managing the head of school. Boards that spend too much time in meetings, however, tend to forget what their key roles are. And just as extraneous board committees lead some trustees to focus on functions that are best left the school administration, too many meetings can easily lead to discussions of topics that boards should not be involved with. Less frequent meetings will also quickly raise the strategic level of presentations and discussions and put further emphasis on the important work of the board’s committees.
I have always been amazed that for- profit corporations with annual budgets measured in the hundreds of millions, or billions, can manage with boards of directors that meet on a quarterly basis. The largest Jewish day school in North America has an annual budget that is under $50 million and most are under $10 million, so we should be able to get the true board work done in four regular meetings, not 10 or 12.
In conclusion, the experience that most schools had managing their way through the Covid-19 pandemic of the past year has taught us all some wonderful lessons. Chief among those has been not to underestimate how much good can be accomplished by the collective power of a group of dedicated individuals like Jewish day school trustees. As we look forward, however, those same institutions should be looking to capitalize on lessons learned during Covid in the classroom and in the management of the school, with the institution of best practices for a board of trustees near the top of the list.
One final suggestion: Institute a limit on the number of current parents who can serve on the school’s board of trustees. Parents are inherently conflicted and can often time have a hard time switching “hats” when serving as a trustee. Certainly, having some parents on the board can be useful, but in my ideal Jewish day school board, there would never be more than 50% of the trustees with students in the school. We all learned the importance of community support for our schools in the past year, and now would be a great time to invite highly capable people from the community to join our boards.