Board-Savvy Superintendent

Board Committees That Work
By DOUG EADIE/School Administrator, August 2018

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO during the first of four coaching sessions, the superintendent of a mid-size suburban school district identified board “micromanaging” as one of his 10 most worrisome challenges as the district’s relatively new chief executive officer.

When we dug into the micromanagement issue during our second session a couple of weeks later, the culprit was obvious: a poorly designed board standing committee structure that actually invited board members to get into the administrative weeds. This was not the new superintendent’s fault. He had inherited the committees his seven-member board had adopted 18 months before his arrival.

Three Functions
A classic rule of organizational design is that structure should align with broad functions. It is now widely recognized in the rapidly evolving field of public/nonprofit governance that the decisions and judgments making up a board’s governing work flow along three primary functional streams: (1) strategic and operational planning; (2) performance monitoring; and (3) external/stakeholder relations.

In the planning area, boards adopt vision statements, strategic goals, annual operating plans and the annual budget. In the performance monitoring area, boards make judgments about district performance after reviewing performance reports. In the external/stakeholder relations area, boards adopt updated district image statements, identify the highest priority stakeholders and approve stakeholder relationship-building strategies.

But the structure-follows-function rule had been completely ignored by our new superintendent’s board when it adopted a structure of three “silo” committees aligned with narrow, essentially administrative and programmatic functions before he took the helm: the curriculum and instruction committee; the finance and personnel committee; and the buildings and grounds committee.

Rather than focusing on important governing decisions, these committees were functioning as technical advisory bodies that routinely dealt with nuts-and-bolts administrative and programming questions.

Raising Sights
The superintendent and I brought the school board president into our third counseling session, during which we discussed the structural flaw that was drawing board members into non-governing details, reducing the board’s governing impact while frustrating the superintendent and his executive team.

After an intense three-hour discussion, the president concurred. We had to update the board’s standing committee structure if we were to raise board members’ sights above the nitty-gritty and focus them on high-stakes governing decisions. We agreed the board president would chair a governance working group consisting of two other board members and the superintendent to generate a new board committee structure better aligned with the board’s governing responsibilities.

This working group came up with two board standing committees corresponding to the board’s governing functions — a strategic and operational planning committee and a monitoring and community relations committee — and a board operations committee. The latter would be chaired by the board president and consist of the other two committees’ chairs to oversee and coordinate committee work.

The working group also mapped out detailed committee functional descriptions to be used in orienting committee members and a set of committee operating guidelines to promote committee effectiveness. One of  the more important guidelines was regular rotation of committee chairs and members (to widen ownership of committee work and spread leadership of the committees).

Elevated Standing
Although it took a few months to get the new committees up to speed, the updated structure succeeded in elevating the school board’s governing performance while solving the problem of micromanagement.

Of course, one board member or another occasionally raises a nuts-and-bolts operational issue at a board meeting, but the board president without fail refers the issue to the appropriate standing committee.
DOUG EADIE is CEO of Doug Eadie & Co. in Clearwater, Fla. Twitter: @DougEadieCo