Term limits

One of the popular workshops I conduct for school boards is titled “Creating and Sustaining Healthy Boards in good times and bad”.  During that workshop I present research on the characteristics of school boards that have demonstrated characteristics of effective governance that have led to demonstrably higher student achievement.

According to this research, one of these characteristics of healthy school boards is having term limits for their members.  For boards in schools that follow US traditions, adopting term limits is unsurprising.  For boards in schools that are more within the British tradition, term limits are far less common.

I wrote briefly about term limits in a previous article When should board members step down?  It provoked several requests for more information, so this article explores the topic in greater depth and specificity.

Hourglass with calendar

When I touched upon the subject of term limits during a workshop presentation to one school board (in Australia), the conversation between board members went something like this:

What is the biggest issue at play here?  Perhaps it is that board members don’t know their own constitution?  Perhaps it is that no-one on the board aspires to be Chair?

I think the biggest issue is summed up in the words “I doubt any of us could do the work that John has been doing”.  Clearly, no succession planning has been done, and the board has no leadership pipeline.  The situation was exacerbated because this board operated with very few committees, and the committees it did have were composed entirely of board members, so this common avenue to explore potential new board members (and leaders) was unavailable to them.

How can term limits strengthen board leadership, and what do we mean by term limits?  In essence, term limits arise when a board adopts a policy that requires board members to retire when they have served a pre-set number of terms (such as three 3-year terms).  Sometimes, term-limit policies may include specific exceptions, such as when a Chair who has reached the term limit may be permitted to remain one extra term to provide institutional memory and support during a new chair’s first term of office.

There are (at least) five reasons that term limits can add value to a school board:

One of the most common objections I hear to introducing term limits is that the board will lose institutional memory.  Of course, institutional memory is important for a board, but that is a weak argument when it is used to justify retaining board members (as I have seen) for twenty years and more on a school board.  Term limits do not imply that institutional memory should be sacrificed, simply that institutional memory shifts from the board to other bodies such as committees, advisory groups, task forces and “friends of the school” groups.  Alternatively, any loss of institutional memory can be minimised by creating a plan that staggers the timing of the term limits, meaning that everyone isn’t rotating off the board at the same time. 

If a board wishes their school to gain the benefits of introducing term limits, it must be handled in a way that is appropriate for that school’s history, mission and demographics.  For example, one young school introduced term limits of three years with the option to renew for one more time, but in addition had a limited number of lifetime positions for the school’s founders.

Why is this conversation important?  A meta-study by Nancy Walser demonstrated that there is a direct, positive relationship between “high quality boards” and higher student achievement.  Given that schools exist primarily to benefit the students they serve, every school board should strive to be as effective as possible.  Walser identified term limits as one of the characteristics of “high quality boards”.  

Therefore, for boards that do not have term limits, I suggest it is worth initiating a discussion about the potential benefits that introducing term limits might bring.  Naturally objections like “losing institutional memory” should be included in the discussion; it needs to be a full and frank discussion that is based on the evidence, not sentimentality or emotions. 

Term limits may not be the easiest policy to introduce to a school board, and the form they might take will vary from school to school and from board to board, but a competent school board should never have qualms about engaging in important discussions.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Term limits, succession planning, and other facets of board composition and dynamics are covered in our workshop OSG-S1 ‘Board Operations’.

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

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html. You can subscribe to receive future articles by e-mail using the red button below.