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When should board members step down?

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

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 they 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 board member evaluation

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 bi-annually).  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 the performance of the chair, themselves, 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:

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 members, failure to fulfil the written set of board expectations or code of conduct, a violation of the duty of confidentiality or public disagreement with a board decision. 

Board member removal should only be undertaken on a ‘no surprises’ basis, only after formal board member evaluation plus 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 stephen@optimalschool.com 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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