Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Have front burner issues pushed governance work off your fall retreat agenda? Or perhaps you've canceled it altogether out of concern for the additional time you've already asked trustees to put in over the summer. Has new trustee orientation been reduced to brief summaries of committee work and a review of the board calendar with a post script admonition to read the Trustees' Handbook? With all that independent school boards have been and will be asked to do this year, it's understandable how any of the scenarios above could come about. It's also certain that a failure to orient, refresh, deepen trustees' understanding of governance poses a danger to schools in any season, in this season, a clear disaster in the waiting.
In fact, it's already happening. In my conversations with heads, board chairs and other consultants this summer, I've heard descriptions of explosions and imminent crack ups: emergency, pitchforks-and-torches town hall meetings; head resignations; mass trustee walk outs; social media mayhem; snarky, beyond-the-ivory-tower-lies-the-Jerry-Springer-Show pieces in the legacy media. Some of it came along with immediate financial consequences, unexpected (but avoidable) institution-shaking additions to already stretched budgets. All of it came with huge hits to confidence in these schools at a moment when national confidence in institutions overall is at an all time low.
There is every reason to believe that these kinds of stories will increase in frequency once schools are back in session. Without training, trustees might gravitate to any number of dysfunctional postures. Some will duck their heads and hide. Others will align themselves with some concerned constituency and become their standard bearer. Still others might allow themselves to be invited into "constructive criticism" of the head with current school parents or of the school among their circle of friends outside the school.
Independent school trustees will be under extraordinary pressure this year. Although you might think consultants would be happy to have a lot of head searches and Wolf-like governance clean-up assignments to vie for, anyone who's ever worked with a board and--by extension, and always--school community in disarray, knows that these kinds of assignments are physically grueling and horribly discouraging. Time's running out. Invest in proactive board education.