Managing the Board’s relationships with the school community is often one of the more problematic and perplexing aspects of governance. It is a relationship requiring immense sensitivity. For many Trustees, engaging with the school community can all-too- quickly become a matter of ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’.
At its best, effective two-way engagement between the Board and the community can build collaborative relationships of mutual trust and common purpose with key stakeholders. Such relationships can be very productive in clearing blockages as the school works harmoniously and productively to achieve its shared vision for the future. On the other hand, inappropriate communication between Trustees and the school community can short-circuit the normal information flows, resulting in mistrust, unawareness, suspicion, rumour-mongering and instability.
Communication between the Board and the community can be broadly categorised as a ‘boundaries issue’. This is especially so for board members who are parents, or alumni who may feel competing loyalties towards maintaining Board confidentiality on the one hand and aiding transparent communication with other parents and alumni on the other (especially if the board member was nominated to the Board by these groups as their representative). Board members who are parents or alumni must, like all other members, place the whole school’s interests before their own sectional interests. A good rule-of-thumb here is that board members who are parents need to make decisions that are based on what will be best for their grandchildren, not their children.
There is a growing trend among School Boards not to appoint parents as members to avoid the conflicts of loyalties that may arise. One School Board I worked with had decided to cease appointing parent representatives. The decision became quite controversial as it was seen to be a change to the school’s long-standing tradition of open transparency and strong parent voice. I advised that the Board should continue with its proposed change, but also establish a new advisory group to the Head comprising parents, teachers, senior students and alumni as a substitute. This initiative enabled the Board to engage with the community appropriately, while also giving parents a more direct and effective voice. Furthermore, the initiative provided the Head with an effective new group to use as a sounding board for advice and a channel of communication with important components of the school community.
One way that relations between the Board and the community can become dysfunctional is when appropriate conduits of communication are ignored or misused. It is important that board members who receive concerns and hear complaints from parents and others in the community refer those people to the Head or another appropriate senior administrator without becoming involved personally (unless the concerns relate strictly to matters of governance or Board practice). By following correct communication protocols, board members can help maintain the pivotal separation between governance (the role of the Board) and management (the responsibility of the Head and the staff).
It is important that the Board engages with the school community, and that it does so appropriately. For educational and administrative matters, the Head will be the main conduit of communication – in both directions – between the Board and the community. More direct communication from the Board (usually through the Chair) will be appropriate for governance matters, but such communications will usually be infrequent and concern matters of considerable substance.
-Dr Stephen Codrington