Making a Community Board Work for a Community School
A community board is a very broad term. Does the board belong to the community, representing the issues and interests of the other institutions, or does it belong to the school, whose constituents are also members or stakeholders of the shuls or community centers? As the newest organization in Charlotte, we were very cognizant of the other institutions. We wanted the board to reflect the community and felt there should be representation from each of the primary organizations. We believed that by having a representative from each synagogue, the Federation and the JCC, we would establish a line of open communication. We recruited individuals primarily based on their affiliations with little regard to the real focus and management of day school business. Our overwhelming concern was acceptance by the community. We wanted to be able to show that we had a community board made up of people from all areas of the community.
The first board was composed of a very committed group of parents of current day school students, and an equal number of non-parent community representatives. Most of the non- parent board members were “friends” of the day school, in the fact that they didn’t vehemently oppose our very existence. These trustees were valued for their existing affiliations and chosen accordingly. Our board “functioned” primarily driven by the parents and addressed the immediate day to day needs of the school in incredible detail. I don’t think the word “strategic” was uttered in a board meeting for the first three years.
Our discussions were challenging, to say the least. The passionate parents, and I was certainly one of them, were often stymied as we wrestled with some community issues. Some of the board meetings were venting opportunities rather than productive discussions guided by a strategic vision. Our board functioned slowly. We made decisions, but we had many trustees who simply attended the meetings and didn’t contribute. These trustees weren’t engaged in the activities of the day school, but we really didn’t ask them to be. They didn’t understand the issues, or perhaps they didn’t care to understand them, because they were only there as representatives of other organization and their primary interests lay elsewhere. We gave them little to no guidance about their role on the board, imagining that miraculously they would become as passionate about the school as the rest of us. Consequently, they did not facilitate communication among the institutions. So the single thing we were trying to accomplish never got off the ground. We were a community board on paper, but not in functionality.
In hindsight, I am sure that many of the trustees were curious as to why they were given the honor of sitting on our board. In most instances their board attendance was less than 50%. When they did come, they didn’t really contribute to any discussion. Thankfully, they never created an obstacle or objection over actions that the board was deliberating; they merely voted with the majority of trustees. But think about what we missed! We really needed issues examined from a different point of view. We badly required the active participation and experience that an attorney would lend to our bylaw revisions. We ached for the leadership of a strong community visionary who could temper our passion and bring perspective to our discussions.
Our trustees who were chosen because of their affiliation created no warm and fuzzy feelings with their respective institutions. What did we expect? They really had no interest in day school education, but accepted the position because they were curious, or they “couldn’t say no” to the passionate parent who asked them to serve time at the day school. What we learned is that it is not enough to just have a “community board.” Don’t get me wrong, this board was completely supportive of the director and the school mission. We raised funds, grew enrollment and had a powerful and vocal group of parents with bullhorns on the streets talking day school talk. But we were not strategic, our community members didn’t forge alliances with any other organization, nor could they help us navigate the politics of the Jewish community. We knew where we needed to be next month, but we didn’t know how we would get there or how we would pay for it. We remained an isolated institution.
Twelve years later, after numerous PEJE grants, coaches and training, we are experiencing a completely different version of a community board. We have a fully engaged board which is made up of members from different parts of the community. There are two primary differences from our first iteration. First, the trustees are chosen to fill very specific needs of the school, as determined by the board through a fluid strategic plan. The Committee of Trustees first looks for individuals who have the skill set and interest in a particular area of need. We are Jews making a shidduch between an organization and an individual. For instance, to assist in enrollment and making the day school more accessible to a broader community audience, we look for an individual with strong marketing and public relations experience. We also look for potential trustees with relationships with the two feeder preschools. When we have trouble with community facilities issues and community politics, we look for people who are highly respected in the community and known for their leadership and consensus building. Like a shidduch, the match has to work for both parties or it is not worth making.
By following the strategic plan, our Committee of Trustees has a job profile to be filled. When they find the right person, they have a specific job portfolio to present in an area which will engage the new board member.
The second difference in our sitting board members is the understanding that while they are a trustee of Charlotte Jewish Day School, they wear a CJDS hat 24/7, regardless of what other affiliations they might have. Each board member must understand that they represent the school first, before any other institution. Decisions are made from the point of view of what is best for the children of the school, and what will allow the school to continue to grow and thrive and achieve our mission. This “reorients” the board and unites the 18-24 members by putting the school first each and every day.
These two things have created a more dynamic and engaged board. Each member is more knowledgeable and wants to be a valued trustee. Now our board members are using their relationships and affiliations to invite lay leaders into the school to visit or to ask to address other boards just to give them an update on activities at the community day school. They are able to dispel rumors in the community or offer informed explanations to other boards or groups. We are functioning in a proactive manner instead of reactive.
Our board meetings are thoughtful and productive. We have healthy discussions with opposing points of view. Board members leave their personal agendas at the door, and enter each meeting seeking to guide the school in the best direction, making sound financial and policy decisions. They now are familiar with our strategic plan and “hot issues,” which makes them effective ambassadors to the entire community, ready to tell the day school story from an informed point of view. And most interestingly, we have representation from the boards of all of the major synagogues and Jewish institutions in Charlotte. The school has earned the reputation for having the best board in the community. I think we have finally defined a community board. ♦
Gale Osborne has been a Charlotte Jewish Day School board member since its inception and now serves as Development Director. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.