School & District Management Opinion

Independent School Governance: How It Works

By Peter Gow — June 26, 2013 4 min read
Scarce classroom of students taking exams at their desks with empty desks in the foreground.
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One of the mysteries about independent schools is how they differ from the generality of “private schools.” Within the sector we use the term “independent” with easy familiarity, but to the world at large we’re just one more bunch of private schools.

By definition, and to a degree by the rules of the “guild,” if the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) can be said to play that role (I think they’d squirm a bit at the idea, but it’s sort of a useful notion here), independent schools are independently governed by self-perpetuating boards, self-funding through tuitions, fees, fundraising, and auxiliary income, and—for membership in NAIS—both firmly nondiscriminatory and absolutely non-profit. They have their own, individual mission statements (although it’s unfortunately true that many look kind of alike).

Cynics scratch their heads over the number of nonprofit organizations that our society supports (just shy of 1.5 million, according to National Center for Charitable Statistics), but they must really puzzle over the number of volunteer person-hours that go into running them. Even independent schools, the core 1100 that are NAIS members, must have at least 15,000 trustees who spend at bare minimum a couple of hours in meetings a few times a year. A good many of them, thankfully, put in far more time than this.

Why do they do it, and what, exactly, is it that they do?

Motivations vary. I suppose board membership at many schools could be a nice résumé or obituary item (for those who take the long view), but I’m guessing that most independent school trustees actually care deeply about their school. A few may have particular axes to grind, some are recruited for wealth or the trophy value of their name, some must find the experience primarily fun and sociable, and many are parents who have an immediate, obvious stake in the day-to-day life of the institution. Certain board roles—chair, treasurer, committee chair—come with a guarantee of piles of serious, detail-oriented work; good boards are built around their ability to recruit, vet, and train, through experience, capable board officers, and thus a “nominating committee” or “committee on trustees” is viewed by the best boards as the most important board body, after the executive committee. (The executive committee is generally made up of board officers; some boarding schools may add a few key trustees who live near the school to the executive in case of need.)

NAIS publishes a comprehensive Trustee Handbook and maintains a set of Principles of Good Practice for boards (and board members). In many schools the board’s primary and indeed only official functions are setting the school’s mission, hiring and overseeing the school head, and setting tuition. In practice this of course requires keeping a close eye on the programs and practices of the school and an equally close eye on its fiscal health; “stewardship” of the school’s resources—including the acquisition of more through giving—is a primary duty of the board.

In years past board members were said to be chosen for their ability to contribute one of the “Three W’s: wisdom, work, or wealth.” This probably remains true. Good experience and judgment will always be critical to the operation of a school, there is work aplenty for boards and board members, and the capacity to bolster the school’s coffers against hard times is ever a good thing.

The challenge for boards, their leaders, and often for heads of schools is to demarcate the boundary between the board’s role and the work of the school’s management team and faculty. “Micromanaging” by boards—overzealous “education committees” or simply over-involved, single-issue parent or alumni/ae trustees—has proved fatal not just to headships but occasionally to schools themselves by igniting political firestorms; by the same token, under-involved boards and incurious trustees can sit idly by as schools sail serenely toward financial or programmatic ruin. Close, congenial, and candid collaboration between school heads and board chairs is generally cited as a major factor in many schools’ success in a given period or era of leadership.

It seems to be an obligatory feature of “prep school movies” and books that at least one trustee is a self-serving, power-mad beast who throws his (always his, I notice) weight around, usually to accomplish a goal characterized by naked bigotry. I’ve been around independent schools for a long time, and I’ve never encountered one of these trustees, although I am sure they exist somewhere. The men and women with whom and for whom I have worked have universally been committed to the school, thoughtful and circumspect in determining their positions on a wide variety of issues. I haven’t always agreed with all of them, but I’ve run across few not eminently worthy of respect, whether for their authentic wisdom, willingness to work hard on behalf of the school, or their judicious and generous application of wealth—for the greater glory of the school, not themselves. (For what it’s worth, the “named” room, building, or program is far more often the grateful school’s idea than a self-aggrandizing donor’s, in my experience.) And any school has its list of truly great trustees in whom all three “W’s” have been combined.

Do schools sometimes knuckle under to the wishes of “influential” trustees? Does their cash rule everything around them? Do they demand special privileges for their progeny? Maybe, although I haven’t seen it much; responsible board chairs and heads are good at keeping this kind of thing in check. It’s also why schools have missions and thoughtfully articulated strategic directions—to maintain paths defined by values and informed by actual need. The availability of leadership and resources matters, of course, but the best trustees, and the best boards, put the school first.

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.