How frequently should your school board meet?

I was Principal of five schools in four countries over 25 years.  Two of those schools had monthly board meetings, or more accurately 11 meetings per year as there was no meeting during the long summer break.  Two other schools’ boards met eight times each year, which represented two meetings per term.  One school’s board met four times per year (twice per semester).

The boards that met monthly typically had meetings that lasted between five and seven hours.  Meetings of the boards that met eight times per year typically lasted about four hours.  The board that met four times per year always had meetings that lasted for precisely 2 hours 15 minutes (10:00am to 12:15pm – several members would stand up and leave at 12:15pm even if someone was speaking at mid-sentence so they would not be not late for their lunch appointment).

I’m sure you can see the pattern here.  Schools that meet more frequently have longer meetings than board that meet less frequently, counterintuitive though this may seem.

This suggests that Parkinson’s Law may be true – that the amount of work in a school board meeting expands to fill the time available.  This can be expressed in several alternative ways – the Stock-Sanford claim is that “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do”.  Mark Horstman said that “Work contracts to fit in the time we give it”.

Parkinson's Law (graph)

There is no single rule for the ideal frequency and duration of a school board meeting – every school is unique, so every school has different needs.

Inevitably, young schools usually require more board meetings than older schools, simply to deal with the process of establishing the school, developing policies and procedures, planning building programs, and so on.

I can also personally verify that attendees’ productivity declines after about four hours, irrespective of the quality of Chinese takeaways or microwaved pizzas that are provided at the meeting.

I believe that for most schools, monthly meetings are probably too frequent.  We can see this by considering the cycle underpinning monthly meetings.  Consider the cycle of (say) the October board meeting, scheduled for the first week of the month:

3rd week of September: The Chair starts to think about the agenda, and the Principal starts to write the report.

4th week of September: The Principal’s board report is complete, presentations are ready, guest presenters have been arranged, and all the documents/materials have been distributed to members via e-mail, via a secure website or platform, or (sometimes, even today) as a pile of paper.

1st week of October: The day of the board meeting arrives. The board meets, and the Principal basks in the glow of appreciative feedback. 

2nd week of October: The Principal sends out a follow-up e-mail to the board with answers to any questions that arose during the meeting, and begins to implement decisions made by the Board and delegated to the Principal during the meeting. 

3rd week of October: The monthly board meeting planning cycle starts all over again. 

In between this flurry of activity, the Principal is expected to do everything else that is involved in running the school – conducting meetings with the management team, meeting with parents, conducting tours with prospective parents, writing policies and documents, leading collective staff meetings, conducting assemblies, appointing, supporting and evaluating staff, handling crises, ensuring compliance with government regulations and accountability requirements, leading the process of change management and reform to ensure the success of initiatives, picking up rubbish in the playground (not a joke!), actually caring for the welfare and educational formation of the students, and fulfilling all the duties and tasks delegated by the Board.  (Note that this is just an indicative list – it is certainly not an exhaustive one!).

As you have probably gathered, I am not a big fan of monthly board meetings.  They CAN work, but only if the problematic consequences can be addressed effectively.  What are the challenges to be addressed?

Challenge No.1 – The Principal spends so much time planning for the board meeting, including writing up the report, and then following up the decisions made in the board meeting, that it can be difficult to find sufficient time to perform the role description (i.e. do the real job of running the school).  Given the timeframes listed above, when can the Principal focus on student and staff welfare, think strategically, evaluate potential initiatives, and so on?

Challenge No.2 – Monthly board meetings tend to follow highly predictable, routine structures, because there is little time to consider creative alternatives such as inviting staff visitors to share the challenges they are facing, inviting outsiders to provide governance-related professional development for board members, etc.

Challenge No.3 – High frequency meetings permit discussions to drift into operational matters that are really the purview of the management team, whereas less frequent meetings exclude time for such distractions, meaning that the board focuses exclusively on governance matters – as it should!  At its worst, having excessive time at board meetings can invite micromanagement by the board on issues such as the quantities of homework given to students or the quality of food in the cafeteria to the neglect of generative strategic thinking.

Challenge No.4 – Some boards meet monthly to avoid having committees.  The common thinking behind this idea is that every member of the board should be fully involved in every facet of board business.  This is a recipe for long meetings that deal with minutiae, often spending extended periods discussing issues in which several members have neither the expertise not the interest to contribute.  It is generally far more efficient to allow committees to “get into the weeds” and then bring well-considered recommendations to the full board meeting for approval.

How might we address these challenges?

Having made the point that every school is unique and every board’s needs reflect this uniqueness, I would encourage boards that meet monthly to consider meeting less frequently.  Board members invariably want to ‘add value’ to the organisation.  They are also almost always time impoverished.  Therefore, to maximise the impact of the time board members contribute, and to give the Principal the time and flexibility to perform their job effectively, I recommend that boards consider meeting twice per term (eight times per year), or bi-monthly (six times per year).

If the experiment works and the board finds it is achieving better results and staying ‘on task’ by spending less time, everybody wins.  It might even lead to consideration of meeting just once per term (four times per year), assuming of course that time is also set aside for an annual strategic thinking retreat.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Board meetings and dynamics are developed in detail in our workshop OSG-S1 Board Operations

Detailed advice on board meetings and dynamics is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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