Most school boards have committees, but not all board committees operate well. Furthermore, not all committees contribute to the efficiency or effectiveness of the board. At their most extreme, some school boards are so afraid that committees may destabilise the school that they choose not to appoint any committees, thus encumbering the entire board with having to deal with every facet and detail of the school’s governance.
At their best, committees disperse the detailed work of the board, both in terms of time and personnel. Committees can interrogate the viability and detail of proposals before being brought to the board for approval. The typical outcome of a healthy committee structure is shorter board meetings that can focus on ‘big picture’ strategic goals rather than minutiae and detail, usually leading to decisions that are based on evidence and data rather than emotions and opinions.
Another benefit of committees is that they provide the board with the opportunity to “try out” prospective board members, exploring their skills set, capacity to work with others, punctuality, energy, commitment, and so on. This can be done without surrendering any of the board’s authority as the usual ‘rule’ is that with just a few specific exceptions, committees are not empowered to make decisions. Committees consider data, evidence and alternative propositions in order to form recommendations which are brought to the board for approval.
Recognising that committees should be delegated powers that enhance rather than undermine the Board’s authority as the supreme decision-making body of the school, it follows that committees make recommendations, not decisions. Of course, the board may delegate ‘convenience’ powers to a committee, such as approving payments within prescribed limits at various stages of a building program, but it would be dereliction of its duty for a board to delegate substantial powers to a committee. Consider, for example, the power to approve the budget – no. The power to appoint a new Principal – no. The power to dismiss a Principal – no. The power to monitor and direct the school’s academic and co-curricular programs – no. The power to award a building contract – no.
From a legal perspective, the Board always retains full authority as the school’s supreme decision-making body, and Board members carry the legal responsibility for the integrity and consequences of all decisions made at the governance level. Many references support this view (even without referring to my own book on school board governance), and here are seven examples:
“It is the board, and only the board as a whole, that makes policy decisions, but it accomplishes its work through committees and task forces”. DeKuyper, MH (2007) Trustee Handbook: A Guide to Effective Governance for Independent School Boards, n.p.: NAIS. P.17
“In Australia and the US, the board is responsible for the overall governance, management and strategic direction of the organisation. It is also responsible for delivering accountable corporate performance in accordance with the organisation's goals and objectives. Committees, on the other hand, make recommendations for action to the full board, which retains collective responsibility for decision making”. Tumarkin, S (2021) Do board committees hinder decision-making? Sydney: UNSW. https://www.businessthink.unsw.edu.au/articles/board-committees-decision-making
“A committee is created to provide counselling and advice for the board or to handle a task on the board’s agenda. Any recommendations made by a committee need to be approved by the board, but remember, the board is not obligated to go with committee suggestions. Committees are more effective when their charter and scope of work is clearly defined by the board”. BoardSource (2022) Do we really need board committees? Washington DC: BoardSource. https://boardsource.org/resources/really-need-board-committees/
“The reason for a subcommittee’s existence needs to be clearly defined together with broad guidelines as to how it will function and operate. In principle, subcommittees are established to examine, test, review, and explore designated issues and the chairman of the committee reports back to the main board, providing details and recommendations for board consideration and/or, where appropriate, approval”. Stein, D (2016) “Governance as a Corporate Discipline” in LeBlanc, R (ed.) The Handbook of Board Governance: A Comprehensive Guide for Public, Private and Not-for-profit Board Members. Hoboken: Wiley. pp.83-84.
“A governing board’s responsibility is to create an integrated set of values that, taken together, cradle or encompass the nature of the organization. Proper governance is not a piecemeal endeavour… Consequently, board committees, when they are needed to assist the board in decision making, should do pre-board work, not sub-board work… In this process, the committee’s job and the board’s job are sequential and separate”. Carver, J. (2006) Boards that Make a Difference (4th ed.), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp.228-230
“It is clear that the board may delegate its role only to the extent that it is confident it can demonstrate in a court of law that members are performing their duties with due care and diligence. Since the board is ultimately responsible for all of the actions and decisions of an organisation, board members must exert sufficient control over delegates to ensure that the legal obligations of the board and of individual directors are being met”. Keil, G., Nicholson, G., Tunny, JA & Beck, J (2012) Directors at Work: A Practical Guide for Boards, Sydney: Thomson Reuters. p.383
“In order to ensure governance consistency, it is recommended that the board develop a policy on delegation for inclusion in the (Constitution) as well as a formal delegation of authority policy”. Keil, G., Nicholson, G., Tunny, JA & Beck, J (2012) Directors at Work: A Practical Guide for Boards, Sydney: Thomson Reuters. p.389
So, what committees might the board of a school consider forming? The short answer is “it depends on the school”. Large schools tend to have more committees than small schools, and new schools tend to have fewer committees than well-established schools because of the wide range of tasks required in establishing a new school.
The most common and highly recommended committees for schools are a Finance Committee (to oversee financial matters, including the annual budget) and a Governance Committee (to handle the board’s internal processes, including succession management, board member performance reviews and regular board evaluations).
Other committees that are commonly found in schools include a Building and Grounds Committee (or Capital Works Committee) and an Executive Committee (comprising a handful of the most senior board members who are empowered to make certain decisions between board meetings). Also common are short-term committees that are established for a particular purpose such as a Strategic Planning Committee or a Head Search Committee.
Less common committees found in some schools include a Fundraising Committee, an Admissions and Marketing Committee, a Financial Aid Committee, a Policy Oversight Committee, a Risk and Procedures Committee and an Education Committee. Education Committees can be a blessing or a curse depending upon how they are populated and their terms of reference (this may require a full article in its own right at some stage).
The effectiveness of any board committee will largely depend on its leadership. Committees of school boards are usually chaired by a board member who has a capacity to manage meetings in an orderly manner rather than (necessarily) any particular professional skills set. The Chair is thus the person who delivers the committee’s reports and recommendations on behalf of the committee to each board meeting. The remaining committee members may comprise a mix of other board members, senior staff of the school, parents, and external friends of the school.
It is essential that boards review the leadership of their committees regularly, and preferably on an annual basis. If a board has a weak or mediocre leadership it must be corrected quickly for the sake of the board and the entire school. It is also important that the board review and reiterate the terms of reference for each of its boards on an annual basis to ensure efficiency, relevance and close alignment with the school’s mission statement, vision statement, and the priorities of the current strategic plan.
There is value in maintaining a balance between continuing and new members on board committees. Continuing members provide institutional memory while new members bring fresh ideas and perspectives. Presuming that the composition of board committees is reviewed annually, it may be unwise simply to call for board members to volunteer for the committee of their choice, as this discourages turnover and therefore reduces efficacy. Organising committee membership by volunteering may be good from a social perspective but it is unlikely to generate optimal performance.
Alec Issigonis, designer of the original Mini (the car, not the skirt), famously said “a camel is a horse designed by a committee”. No school, even one situated on the Arabian Peninsula, requires a metaphorical camel. If followed carefully, the advice offered here should guide schools towards a committee structure that improves the school for the board, its staff and its students.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
Learn more about making committees effective in workshops such as OSG-S4 Governance and Management.
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