At the Dawn of 2015, How Fares Jewish Day School Governance? Better and Better

By Dr. Harry Bloom

It has been five years since I published the first quantitative study of North American Jewish day school governance practices as part of my doctoral work at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration (“The Relationship Between Board of Directors Practices and Jewish Day School Financial and Educational Performance Based on Research Among Jewish Day School Board Presidents.”) Now, there is a new 2014 study, conducted – as was the 2009 study – with the support of the RAVSAK, Schechter, PARDES and YU networks among approximately 100 Jewish day school Board presidents. It reveals that some considerable progress has occurred in strengthening day school governance practices. I personally believe that day school governance matters quite a bit and that these positive changes help account for encouraging stability in day school census numbers, despite a number of heartbreaking school closures that have occurred due to lack of enrollment and funding, as revealed by the 2013-14 AVI CHAI day school census.

The all too unsung heroes behind this stability are those day school-engaged lay leaders who devote many of their waking hours to working with school professionals to keep our schools strong. While there has not been progress in governance across the board, there are three key areas where governance practices have been strengthened: financial planning, conflict of interest avoidance and Head of School assessment and support. Collectively, these three areas represent vital pillars of day school sustainability.

With regard to financial planning practices, in 2009, 30% of day school presidents strongly agreed with the statement: “Our Board has developed a financial plan that defines how the school will fund its operations over the next three to five years. It makes assumptions about student enrollment, tuition levels, financial aid, debt, expense levels and fundraising targets.” By 2014 the percentage had risen to 40%. Having such a plan enables a school to develop and implement long-term improvement programs in the context of year-to-year planning and budgeting, whether in cost reduction, tuition setting, staffing or program enhancement. Furthermore, there is no possibility of real contingency planning within a one-year budget frame. Both are possible and more likely when schools engage their Boards and professionals in rigorously thinking about all the drivers of revenue, expenses and sustainability and making concrete plans to manage them under optimistic, pessimistic and most likely scenarios.

Secondly, and no doubt inspired at least somewhat by the Madoff debacle, there was a striking increase in required commitments to conflicts of interest avoidance. In 2009, just under 40% of school Presidents strongly agreed with the statement: “Board members sign annual statements to abide by specific conflict of interest rules.” By 2014, the percentage had increased to just over 60%.

The third area of strong progress was in the area of Board/Head of School relationships. The Head of School is the CEO of the Jewish day school, and her/his success and longevity and that of the school are directly linked. A key aspect of successful Head/Board relationships is clear expectations in the form of written goals. In 2009, 40% of Board presidents strongly agreed with the statement, “Our Board has established written annual goals for our Head of School/Principal.” By 2014, the number had increased to just over 50%.

In addition to establishing clear goals for their Heads of School, Boards are making headway in supporting their Heads with confidential advice and word of mouth advocacy. In 2009, just under 50% of Board presidents strongly agreed with the statement, “Our Board has chartered a committee (sometimes called the Head Support and Evaluation Committee) that supports the Head of School/Principal with confidential advice and with communications support relative to key Constituencies.” By 2014, the percentage had increased to just over 60%.

On another vitally important dimension of Board/Head of School relationships, there was no progress made in the past five years. In both 2009 and 2014, 40% of Board presidents strongly agreed with the statement, “A special Board committee (sometimes called the Head Support and Evaluation Committee) provides written summative performance feedback to the Head of School/Principal at least once a year.” This feels like a major missed opportunity for ensuring that the Board and its single employee, the Head of School, are in alignment around how things are going and about what needs to change. Given the costliness in treasure, time and energy of Head of School transitions, attention needs to be paid to this area as well. We simply cannot afford ambiguity in this vital area.

Still, in summary, there has been significant progress in strengthening Jewish Day School Board governance practices, and this should be celebrated and built upon. It starts with knowing where your Board stands on the practices that matter. Contact PEJE (harry@peje.org) for help in gaining this understanding and in obtaining training support.

Dr. Harry Bloom is Strategy Manager, Day School Sustainability at PEJE.

cross-posted on the Avi Chai Foundation Blog

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