Once a charter school application is approved, founders must quickly establish the legal entity that is the board of trustees.
Establishing and maintaining a strong board are critical tasks for any charter school. For a newly formed school, attention to the composition and work of the board is vital to ensure a smooth transition into a fully functional organization. Founding boards have the delicate task of protecting their original passion and dreams while also making room for new people to fully engage in the organization. Board development is a slow, deliberate process that will test your patience, create opportunities to examine your most basic premises and assumptions and, hopefully, create stability for dealing with on-going challenges.
The first and most important task of the board is to state clearly why the charter school exists and what it is to achieve over time. A clear mission statement will frame this discussion and guide future decisions about the organization.
The board ensures that the charter school starts out and stays mission focused. It is the board’s job to ensure that there are real criteria in place to evaluate new initiatives and resource opportunities and to stay clear of those that take you off mission.
It is also the job of the board to regularly review whether the charter school is achieving success. The board sets and maintains clear standards for success and then regularly asks for information about ongoing progress against these standards.
The board holds the charter school “in trust” for the citizens of your state. Board members act as trustees on behalf of the students and the larger community and must ensure that the school functions in a safe and prudent manner. Developing strong ethical standards in the form of policies is important work of the board. Board members do not represent their own self-interest on a board—they represent the interests of the whole community. This includes responsibility to future students, as well responsibility to current students.
Effective policy development and implementation ensures that the charter school is institutionalizing the values, procedures, and practices that bind it to its mission. It brings professionalism and transparency to the schools fulfillment of responsibilities in the areas of finance, personnel, treatment of students, security and safety of facilities, asset management, and so on. The board must state policies clearly and then monitor the charter school’s adherence.
Boards can get bogged down in the daily operations of the charter school. This is especially true of young charter schools where operational procedures are still evolving. A strong board will resist the temptation to micro-manage and will instead hold the staff accountable to both the mission statement and the stated policies. While the adoption of policies is the board’s concern, the procedures to carry them out is the work of the staff.
Since the board does not engage in day-to-day operations, it has the time and responsibility to look into the future. Where should the organization be in three years? How is the community changing and what must we do to adapt to the change? What will our students need in the future that is not available now?
The board’s job is to routinely assess its internal and external environment, and to set strategic priorities for the future. The board sets goals and then monitors progress and helps remove obstacles that get in the way. This will require that the board stays informed about the needs of students and families, aware of changing regulatory requirements and alert to changing needs of a community. It also requires that the board stay focused on just a few future priorities and encourages staff to set aside time to work on tomorrow’s needs in addition to today’s challenges.
Regardless of what the title is – headmaster, principal, executive director – there is only one staff member that reports directly to the board. This person is hired by the board, reports to the board as a whole (not individual members), and is accountable for the operations of the charter school. The relationship between the board and the school leader is critical to the success of the charter school. There must also be clear accountability and role differentiation between the board and school leader.
For this reason—as well as to comply with the regulations of most states—it is best for the school leader to have a voice but no vote on board matters; that is, to serve as an ex officio member.
Establishing clear roles is difficult for newly established charter schools, especially if the school leader is one of the founders. But such differentiation is essential; future conflicts are unavoidable if clarity is not achieved. To properly evaluate the effectiveness of the school leader, the board must first do its own job establishing policy and setting strategic priorities for the school leader in accordance with the mission. It is only by doing its own job that it is able to evaluate the school leader using the relevant criteria.
Evaluating the school leader is one of the most important responsibilities of the board. They must establish well considered policies and procedures to do this from the outset. Nothing is more critical to the life of the school; a weak, unskilled or disorganized school leader must be dealt with quickly either through professional development or replacement. Most boards wait too long to identify these problems and do not establish the clear standards by which the school leader is evaluated.
Do not try to invent the school leader evaluation process from scratch. Reach out to established schools and search online for best practices and then adapt them to your needs. Any process that includes 360-degree feedback, is well aligned with the school’s mission, goals, and objectives, and is handled in a clear and professional manner would be a good starting point.