Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A governance mis-step

To succeed, a school must have and fill a niche, aka its "mission". At the same time, as I write elsewhere, the Board must know its role and not become inappropriately involved. The following tale shows how true this is.

A small independent school, founded 12 years ago, had a well-defined and specialist niche. It would be the only such school in its city and in that part of the state. The program was well-known and successful around the country and internationally, but no-one yet offered it locally. Students would receive intensive, personal, and detailed individual attention from dedicated staff, classes would also be kept small, and the deputy principals (PS, ES, MS, HS) would have dedicated time for students and parents with the business office assuming many administrative functions.

In particular, the program would cater to gifted students, "alternative learners", and active students.

The school opened with PK and grew by a grade each year and was looking forward to its first elementary graduation. Things went very well for eight years with annual growth of 15 - 25%, even during the great recession. The school's first teachers were still there. Several teachers who had left citing onerous demands were asking to return, and one had been rehired.

The school achieved local, state, and national fame and was featured in local, national and international media. It took city sporting titles, state and national academic honors. Its teachers won local awards for excellence. It was honored by two different countries for its program, and received visits from politicians, US State Department representatives, and diplomats.

Then in Year Eight the founding Board chair took a post in Washington DC. He had a great relationship with the founding principal, actively pursued governance best practice, knew his role and that of the board.

The new Board chair was different. He had "served on hundreds of boards" and he "knew" that a school Board is "just like" any other organization's. He declared the Board not only sets policy, but also instructs the principal and leadership team on implementing it. Board meetings began to include open criticisms of the actions of the school's leaders. Board members began socializing with parents and staff whose gripes were reported at Board meetings as evidence of misdeeds. Anecdotes became statements of fact.

The principal had a frank meeting with the Board chair which ended in the latter's resignation. At the beginning of Year Ten, the Board elected a new Chair who had not been on the Board before. He began by declaring that everything which happened in the school was the responsibility of the Board and that he intended to be actively involved. He instructed the principal to hire a friend as a facilities manager, and then to pay his friend both outside the salary scale and at a higher rate than any of the teaching staff, higher even than the deputy principals.

Board members began involving themselves in the operations of the school. The school's photographer was told he was no longer needed. A friend of board member was then contracted. The school's cleaning company was told it was being replaced and a representative of a national cleaning chain appeared in the school, introducing himself as the new cleaner.

Divisions amongst parents and staff began to emerge and to assume great significance.

The new Chair announced he did not need any Board training because, while he had not been on a school board prior, he was on the board of his church so he "knew about governance". Another, new, Board member did not need training as she could read. Another attended a four-hour seminar the year before which was enough. Another was much too busy, but because he ran a large department he knew about management. Two Board members resigned and the principal's proposal for replacements was ignored on the grounds the Board was big enough and functioning well.

The principal had a meeting with this Board chair which ended with the principal's termination by means of paid notice. At a very noisy parent meeting, each Board member got up to say that the reason for termination was very serious, but because of confidentiality, they could not reveal it. Parents and colleagues who had previously been strong and loyal supporters of the principal backed away thinking that he must have done something truly awful. The founding principal, who was individually and directly responsible for every aspect of the school's success, could not even contest his termination because no reason, which he could then dispute, was given.

After the founding principal left, the Board chair persuaded the Board they did not need a principal and that the two deputies plus the business manager could run the school. He spent large sums which were not included in the budget on projects which had nothing to do with the school's mission, but which he thought made it look more attractive. He believed parents choose a school based on its appearance so an elementary science lab was essential, even though the school's previous and award-winning science was classroom-based and integrated into regular lessons rather then being as a separate subject.

A crisis came and mid-year the Board appointed an interim principal, who was local, curiously immediately available, and who knew nothing of the school's mission. He began moving the school away from its former niche, towards what he knew and was comfortable with. By the end of his four months, the school was in many respects no different from many other schools in the city. It was now quite similar to local public schools which of course do not charge independent school fees.

The school began to suffer and by the end of Year Eleven, a third of the families and many of the original teachers left. The school had financial issues and the Board Chair and most of the Board resigned. The applicant pool for the principal position was shallow and weak. Someone from out of state was appointed with no local market knowledge, no leadership experience, no independent school experience, and no experience in any of the areas of the school's original mission.

This new Head took the school away further from its original niche and towards what he knew and was comfortable with. Meanwhile, two new schools opened nearby between them offering exactly what this school had once done. Its sports and arts program collapsed. Monthly field trips and student exhibitions stopped. Participation in national and international competitions stopped. The media cover and the VIP visits all dried up. Things that were formerly free like clubs and classroom supplies now carried charges so participation dropped and parents began complaining about expenses. Staff parties stopped and teachers began refusing to substitute for absent colleagues. Divisions amongst staff and between parents emerged.

In his first semester, the school defaulted on a construction debt and also had to ask for a rent abatement. The new Board chair began contributing her own funds to keep things going. Adminstrative staff were released. Some were replaced by college students on part-time, below-market salaries. Another quarter of the students and a number of staff left and enrollment is still declining.


The school now has nothing to distinguish it from any other school in the city. The program, attention to students, and staff which made it unique have all gone. Free public schools and other non-public schools offer much of what it did, and in many cases using its ex-staff. If the Board had kept to the school's original mission, it would have continued to exist and in time perhaps to bounce back, despite the terrible governance missteps. However, departing from the mission and the two governance failings, are in combination almost certainly fatal. The school's prognosis is not at all good.

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