Leadership complacency

The value and impact of board governance on Jewish day school effectiveness

In Short

The creation of strong board governance structures and processes in our day schools and yeshivot ensures a level of institutional integrity, stability, professionalism and security. It also ensures that the school has a level of financial steadiness anchored in transparency and credibility.

As I look around the country, I can’t help but observe the wide disparity between those Jewish day schools and yeshivot that possess well-developed governance leadership structures, policies and procedures and those that seriously lack any semblance of a governance structure or process.

These disparities, which at times are striking, may be the result of a variety of factors and circumstances. Some may be attributed to a lack of understanding regarding the true value and efficacy of strong governing bodies on institutional effectiveness; for others, it may be the result of a leadership vacuum, insecurity or a complete disregard for how effective schools actually function or operate.

This latter observation is not intended to be overly critical of these institutions, but rather the result of their lack of knowledge and/or a level of naivety regarding the importance and centrality of a school’s governance and its relationship to school effectiveness and progress.

Irrespective of the reasons attributed to these organizational deficits or shortcomings, the reality is that there are very few high capacity and performing boards that govern weak or ineffective schools. By the same token, there are very few schools of academic excellence with mediocre or ineffective governing boards. This causal relationship makes tremendous sense and supports the contention that effective schools have strong boards and ineffective schools have boards that are mediocre or virtually nonexistent. This relationship is further supported by a growing body or empirical data regarding the effect of school governance on the quality of education in schools.

As we know, there are those who will debate and argue as to whether Jewish day schools or yeshivot actually require high performing boards (or for that matter, any type of a board or lay governing body). This is especially the case where a school’s founder or senior professional is able to fundraise successfully in the absence of board involvement and/or when the school is experiencing significant growth and increases in its student enrollment. But, reality dictates that in these select cases, schools that do not possess an effective and impactful board infrastructure is a school that is anchored in shifting sand. To be sure, these “successful” schools will eventually find themselves on a very slippery slope as a house of cards. This is particularly the case when the school has no long-range vision or plan for continued sustainability and has accorded very little thought to leadership succession. In other words, as a head of school recently shared with me, “as long as things are good, they are great, we will worry about tomorrow down the road. But, as we know, for 21st century schools to be resilient, successful and sustainable in a competitive environment, schools must possess agreed upon policies, a shared vision and above all, a lay board strategic direction which extends way beyond the present. This therefore requires a well-developed lay and professional partnership with transparent oversight. There are no compromises or shortcuts. And, at the end of the day, leadership complacency becomes the school’s greatest nemesis or GD forbid downfall.

The creation of strong board governance structures and processes in our day schools and yeshivot ensures a level of institutional integrity, stability, professionalism and security. It also ensures that the school has a level of financial steadiness anchored in transparency and credibility. Remember, Jewish day schools and yeshivot are public institutions. They are not private businesses  which operate in a governance vacuum or only at the whim of its founders. As such, the role, function and responsibility of lay boards in this regard is to ensure that the school maintains a level of fiscal transparency and accountability and adheres to best practice and high standards of model practice.

Finally, for a board lay/professional partnership to succeed, it is essential that the professional head of school and/or principal (or whomever occupies the top of the professional leadership pyramid) possess the appropriate skills-set, experience and training required to work effectively with school boards. These trainings in turn provide the senior professional and board members with a host of best practice understandings, strategies, principles and concepts upon which to build an effective and legal governing body. It also eliminates the “big elephant in the room”…..namely the all too often reported concern (from senior executives) that many senior professionals are concerned about the imposition of board demands and  restrictions as well as overbearing board “control” or micromanaging. 

All of these concerns are minimized (if not eliminated) when there are increased levels of confidence, respect and understanding and when differentiated roles and responsibilities are clear and transparent. These board/professional relationships are also greatly dependent upon the personality, temperament and demeanor of the senior executive leading the school and well as the board member.

 As we know, some senior executives are secure, confident and respectful; others are threatened, insecure or defensive. This reality also holds true for the board member who may be somewhat demanding and abrasive – through a my-way-or the–highway attitude. Both extremes never produce great results and eventually lead to institutional toxicity and dysfunctionality. This is where executive and board training, coaching and mentoring becomes extremely valuable and absolutely indispensable (a critically important topic for a separate post).

Like in any meaningful relationship, the board/head of school partnership must be based on clear expectations regarding differentiated roles and responsibilities, a shared vision, respect, trust and transparency. This relationship serves as a foundation upon which to build institutional and personal trust – an imperative for building a strong board and school.

The bottom line is that senior school executives who are secure in their convictions, skill-sets, management style and best practices should never be threatened by a board or members of the board. They should view the board relationship and partnership as a way to help create a culture of collaboration, trust and respect, which will only benefit the school’s mission, impact and effectiveness. In fact, these relationships have an amazing “trickle-down” effect on the rest of the school’s senior leadership team as well as on its faculty and parent body.

The purpose of this post as suggested from the onset, is not to detail the training strategies or skills necessary to create and sustain high impact or performing boards or the lay/professional partnership, but rather to emphasize and describe the value and benefits in creating effective school boards based upon model or best practices in the field. (In order to illustrate this more fully, here is a summary listing of best practices for consideration.)

As our Jewish day schools and yeshivot continue to grow and flourish, they will be challenged to respond to a wide variety of critical challenges and opportunities, unsurpassed in history. 

Some of these challenges will relate to the school’s fiscal viability and personnel requirements; others will relate to demographic trends or the school’s evolving educational philosophy and hashkafa.  

Irrespective of the school’s current or future challenges, one thing is clear….schools with viable and effective boards will have a far greater opportunity to effectively face and address these challenges then those who do not possess effective governing bodies. 

The choices should be clear. 

Chaim Y. Botwinick, Ed.D., is principal of the Hebrew Academy Day School, Margate, Fla., organizational consultant and executive coach. He served in a variety of senior Jewish education leadership positions on the local and national levels; and is the co-founder of LEV Consulting Associates, specializing in strategic planning and organizational development. He is the author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness, Brown Books, 2011.