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What Shouldn't the Board Know

Posted by Scott Barron on Oct 6, 2016 10:05:59 AM
Scott Barron

In light of the best practices of governance, what are the boundaries of the board's knowledge? Are there limitations to what should be shared with the board?

In order for the school(s) to advance as a learning organization, the board has the opportunity to set the pace. I previously shared ten key areas of knowledge that should be incorporated into the professional development and assessments for board members. As a follow up, the question must also be considered as to whether there should be intentional limits on the data/information to which the board should be granted access.

Four Stages of Board Development

The extent of the boards knowledge base is driven in part by the Four Stages of Board Development. This continuum recognizes that the board's leadership style is fluid, often moving between these stages:

1. An Organizing Board 
2. A Managing Board,
3. A Governing Board
4. A Sustaining Board

Each stage is unique in the decision making scope and processes, the relationship with administration, the degree of management involvement, the time horizon of the agenda and decisions, the quality of governance practice, etc. The board may be fully committed to a particular stage, or it may be somewhere between two stages based on the school's history and current situation.

Regularly scheduled self-assessment and independent assessment is vital for the board members to understand and acknowledge where they are on this continuum and to establish the ideal position going forward. Additional information about the Four Stages of Board Development and the processes for assessment and planning are available--Send me an email at or call (855) 444-7698. This material is included in our Board Retreat curriculum. 

What Shouldn't the Board Know?

Board_Secret.jpgFirst, we encourage a leadership culture where there are No Secrets and No Surprises. Such a culture provides the best conditions for maximum trust, energy, and engagement.

I once heard a chief administrator say to his team, "What the board doesn't know won't hurt them." That's extremely poor advice! Because it sets the stage for low trust and fragile relationships. Everyone on the team immediately thought: "So what is he keeping from me? How do I know what to share and what not to share? Who do I trust?" Healthy engagement is seldom achieved with such a leadership style.

A few areas for discussion regarding the level of board data:

  • Payroll: If the chief administrator of the school/system is the sole employee of the board, then what degree of salary/compensation data is truly useful for board members? Is it better for the board to focus on the general budget areas (including payroll) rather than drilling down into specifics of each employee?

  • Student Discipline: Does the board need to be informed of the detailed facts used to determine how a student was disciplined? Is it sufficient to know that the policies of the board and the student handbook were followed?

  • Curricular Decisions: Should the board investigate curricular decisions (e.g., grading, homework, testing), particularly in reaction to parent complaints? What data would help the board have confidence in the school's curricular policies and leadership?

  • Enrollment Data: Does the board require access to enrollment data about a student to evaluate whether the best decision was made? Should confidentiality and governance boundaries limit such interest?

The purpose here is to minimize the risks of the board engaging at an unhealthy level. Fear and a lack of trust are generally the motivating factors in these situations, and these actions can produce damaging unintended consequences. If the board lacks a clear set of rules and procedures to define which decisions belong to the administration and which belong to the board, then the temptation may be strong to quickly move beyond the boundaries of good governance.

What other limitations should be considered for board knowledge and access? 

Topics: Board Culture

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