When should board members step down?

Most boards consider the recruitment of new members very carefully. However, a more difficult conversation arises on the question of when a board member should retire or step down.

Board members typically leave school boards for one of four reasons:

Reason 1: Voluntary resignation

This is by far the easiest and most common way that board members leave school boards.  The board member decides that it’s time and announces that he or she will not seek re-election or re-appointment.  The reason that the decision is made by the board member is usually personal – it may be fatigue, it might be family pressures, it may be illness, or it may simply be to make room for ‘new blood’.  Typically, such departures are accompanied by warm speeches of appreciation and sorrow at the loss of expertise, and everyone remains friends in good standing.

Farewell in Hong Kong

Reason 2: Term limits

Term limits for school boards are less common in some countries (such as Australia) than in others (such as the United States).  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.  Research into best practice indicates that board effectiveness is enhanced on boards that have introduced term limits.  

Reason 3: Unsatisfactory performance by a board member

It is good practice to conduct a performance review of each board member annually.  This is additional to and separate from the more encompassing full review of the board’s performance as a single entity that is conducted regularly (such as biennially).  The aim of individual board member reviews is emphatically not to find fault or grounds for criticism, but to explore emerging areas of interest where board members can contribute effectively and thus avoid drifting into “comfort zone” mentality.

It rarely happens, but ideally the Board Chair should sit down over a coffee with each board member individually at the start of each year and ask how they intend to advance the school’s strategic vision in the coming year.  At the end of the same year, the Chair would have a follow-up one-on-one chat with each board member to review the year and set goals for the coming year. If the chat reveals that the board member has had no impact during the year, the Chair can and should ease out that member.

More common than the annual chat with the Chair is an anonymous survey of each board member to reflect upon their own performance, together with the performance of the chair and each of their fellow board members.  The criteria for such a survey will vary from school board to school board, but a sound list of 20 characteristics of effective board members that emerges from evidence-based research would be something like this:

  • Has a strong record of punctual attendance at meetings
  • Is thoroughly prepared for meetings
  • Makes an active and positive contribution to the board’s work
  • Makes an active, positive contribution to committee(s)
  • Understands and can articulate the school’s mission
  • Demonstrates support for the Head of School in public
  • Follows correct established communication protocols
  • Maintains the confidentiality of the board
  • Functions in governance, not straying into management
  • Focuses only on interests of the whole school (not personal, not sectional)
  • Seeks to serve the students’ interests first
  • Has read the Board Handbook and complies with its provisions
  • Has a strong sense of the importance of ethical behaviour
  • Shows respect to every board member
  • Can work with others in a team-like manner
  • Supports board decisions, even if initially disagreeing
  • Absents themselves when there might be a conflict of interest
  • Is visible in the school community
  • Is open-minded, curious, and asks perceptive questions
  • Has strong leadership abilities and/or potential

Reason 4: Board member removal

Removing a board member against their will is the least common and least comfortable manner for the departure of school board members.  It is rightly regarded as a fairly extreme and ‘ultimate’ action, and is thus exercised rarely and prudently.

Removal of board members is an action reserved for dire circumstances such as violation of legal duties, a failure to participate adequately, repeated unexplained absences from board meetings, failure to fulfil the written set of board expectations or code of conduct, a violation of the duty of confidentiality or public undermining of a board decision. 

Board member removal should be undertaken on a ‘no surprises’ basis, only after formal board member evaluation and/or prior counselling with the Chair. 

A question to consider when a board member must be removed is whether there may be a non-board role suitable for this former board member, such as on an advisory committee.  Of course, this may not be possible or appropriate depending upon the reason for the removal.

It is essential that boards have policies in place addressing the recruitment, orientation, regular review, term of office and procedures for the removal of board members.  These policy provisions must be in place well before they are needed.  The worst possible time to consider developing a policy on board member removal for incompetence, inactivity, ineffectiveness, lack of alignment with board priorities or disreputable activity is when the need actually arises.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Send an e-mail to [email protected] for help with developing a policy on board member recruitment, orientation, performance review and procedures to remove board members that suits the specific needs of your school.

Board dynamics, including policies and performance reviews, 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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