Becoming a decision maker

Issue: Volume 93, Number 10

Posted: 30 June 2014
Reference #: 1H9ct8

Becoming a member of your school’s Board of Trustees is a big responsibility. Education Gazette examines some of the issues and challenges that aspiring Board members should be thinking about.

A Board of Trustees (BOT) in a New Zealand school context is a group of individuals responsible for the governance and control of the management of a school. They have a very important function in determining the achievement of their students. As a group of individuals, they set the school’s strategic direction. This is done in careful consultation with parents, staff, students, and the school’s community. The role of the BOT includes deciding how school funding should be spent, overseeing the management of key areas such as property, finance and curriculum, and setting, monitoring and reviewing student achievement goals and targets.

Every state and state integrated school in New Zealand has a Board of Trustees, including Kura Kaupapa Māori, and Ngā Kura ā Iwi. Members of the BOT include the school principal, along with an elected, or co-opted, or appointed group of eligible people including parent representatives, iwi representatives, proprietor appointees, staff and in some cases, even students. BOT members are elected every three years, or in some schools where they have opted into a mid-term cycle, elections for some parent representative positions occur every 18 months. Trustees may also be co-opted, which means if the BOT has decided that it is lacking in gender or ethnic balance or is lacking in some skill, they can co-opt a trustee/s. Vacancies also appear throughout the term of the BOT, so it pays to be taking an active part in the school community and keeping up to date with membership changes if you are interested in putting yourself forward.

A starting point for prospective members is to sit in on a BOT meeting. These are open to the public. For someone wanting to be a BOT member, these meetings offer an insight into some of the issues that are being tackled throughout the year. Meeting frequency varies from school to school, from every month to twice a term. The requirement is a minimum of every three months, or once a term.

Becoming a BOT member is not for the fainthearted; it comes with a lot of responsibility. So, what does it mean in practice? What are some of the challenges for those starting out on the journey to become a Board member, and what resources are available to them?

What to expect as a new BOT member

In order to govern effectively, a BOT will firstly work to develop their school charter document. This encapsulates policy direction, and is the fundamental document for all school decisions. It is the BOT’s role to develop this in conjunction with staff and with input from the community. It is essentially a 3-5 year picture of where the school is heading. The Principal then develops a plan for each year within it, including goals and targets to achieve. It is then up to the BOT to approve this plan, and monitor and report on the school’s progress against it. The document informs the BOT about the performance of the school and the Principal.

When it comes to the relationship between the BOT and the Principal, the role of Chairperson is a very important one. Once a BOT has been elected, they in turn elect a member to be Chair. “Being a Principal is one of the loneliest jobs in the school,” says BOT member Alan Curtis. “Everybody looks to the Principal, from the staff to the parents, to the BOT, to the Ministry. The first job for the Chair is often as the Principal’s sounding board. They’re simply someone for them to share their issues with.”

If someone wants to become a BOT member, the role of Chairperson is one that requires more than just attending regular meetings. The Chairperson plays a key role in working with the Principal directly, and is often delegated the task of completing his or her review, as well as handling complaints, and acting as spokesperson for the group as a whole.

One of the challenges that can be faced by new Boards of Trustees is the desire to get involved with everything, from fundraising initiatives, to building programmes, to IT infrastructure planning. This can be a challenge, particularly in smaller, rural schools. It is important to draw the line as to when a BOT member is simply a contributing member of the community lending a hand to the Principal, and when they are in a governance role, playing little part in control of the details. There is a largely administrative function to the role, including ensuring roll returns are done and that financial reports are complete and accurate.

For new BOT members, the task can be daunting.

“The first three years you’re learning, and in the next three you are doing something useful. The most important thing is the ability to listen,” says Alan.

All Boards are strongly encouraged to become active members of the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA), Te Whakaroputanga Kaitiaki Kura O Aotearoa. The NZSTA is the only recognised organisation that specifically represents the interests of school boards. Each region of New Zealand has industrial, human relations and professional development advisers to support trustees in their role. The first place to head to as a new BOT member is their website which provides a lot of important information on the responsibilities involved, including student safety and legislation. Throughout the year, the NZSTA offers workshops, and short courses on topics such as ‘Welcome aboard’, student discipline and achievement.

The NZSTA’s main premise is that the Board of Trustees’ role is to improve student achievement. According to their website, this is done by:

“Providing a positive environment for the delivery of quality educational outcomes through focused strategic and annual planning target setting, particularly for those students who are not achieving as they should.

“Also by setting high standards and high expectations around achievement, monitoring of progress towards targets, self-review, and adopting a climate of continuous improvement...”

The NZSTA works with BOTs to align themselves to this core function, through advocacy, advice and strengthening their members through events, online resources, workshops and even ‘fronting up to the school gate’ where necessary.

Alan Curtis is an influential BOT member and Chairperson from Auckland, who currently sits on at least four BOTs, including Carlson School for Cerebral Palsy in Three Kings. He was the Chairperson and BOT member at Westlake Girls High School for 12 years. Alan’s situation may be familiar to many parents, in that his reason for joining the BOT at first was simply that his kids were going to school and he needed to “find out how this thing works; to find a way to contribute.” Currently, he is responsible for delivering professional development workshops offered by the NZSTA.

“It is important to realise that a school is a business: not a commercial business, but it has to be run in a business-like manner. Some people get confused by thinking that it runs more like the PTA or a supporters club. They think they are there to make all the decisions. They are not, they are there to decide the strategies and policies and let the Principal make the decisions based on those strategies,” says Alan.

When it comes to the background of the people wanting to be involved, governance experience can make a big difference. However, a high level of expertise in one area is not necessarily a reason to elect someone. Having fixed views or personal agenda can be a stumbling block for effective BOTs, according to Alan. For example, a large property project may require a committee (possibly including BOT members). If a school is a business, then its Principal is the CEO. The BOT is the owner of the business. “It’s pretty crucial really,” says Alan.

For more information, visit: NZSTA New Zealand School Trustees Association(external link)

Currently, the Ministry of Education also has a large number of resources available online for Board members, prospective or otherwise.

In the near future most of these resources will be moved to the NZSTA website.

BY Anna Forsyth

Posted: 12:24 am, 30 June 2014

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts