Building a charter school board for your new charter venture is only one of the steps in the process. However, it is a vital piece to the success of your organization.
Not only is the board important, but the founding board needs to follow specific guidelines in order to best serve the organization as it is getting started.
To have the best chance at a wildly successful start, founding charter school boards should avoid the following 10 most common mistakes.
1. Not understanding the charter
Too often, the charter is the vision of one lead founder. The rest of the board understands only the broadest brush strokes of the charter or the founder’s guiding vision.
Every board member needs to understand the charter promises, the methods proposed to deliver the promises, and how these promises will be measured.
2. Not having a clear plan to conduct oversight of the academic program
An effective charter school board is not comprised primarily of educators. It should have a few people with broad educational management experience, but trustees should primarily have the skills that the school staff will not bring to the table.
Although most of the board members are non-educators, they need to fully understand the academic plan and partner with the school leader to develop a clear and consistent way to measure academic performance.
3. Not enough expertise to conduct proper financial oversight
The number one reason why charter schools fail is financial mismanagement.
This is generally not due to malfeasance, but to the lack of financial sophistication on the board.
It is essential that there is more than one board member with strong financial skills on the board.
In addition, it’s vital that the financially savvy board members ensure that the rest of the board fully understands the annual budget and monthly financial reporting, and is aware of the short and long-term financial projections and their implications for the health of the school.
4. Composing the board with the wrong people, skillsets, or mindsets
Very often the initial composition of the board that is created for the charter application is flawed.
More often than not, these initial boards:
- lack a level of objectivity, by being close personal friends and colleagues of the lead founder.
- are comprised of board members who were placed on the board to lend their names and credibility; and generally are not prepared to carry out the hard work of governing a start-up charter school.
- were unclear from the start about the time commitment needed to govern a start-up charter school.
- are lacking the right mix of skill sets and tangible ties to the community.
- have difficulty adding non-founders to the board.
5. Starting with too few people on the board
Many founding boards are too small, generally 5-7 people. However, a high functioning charter school board needs to be larger.
We recommend ultimately a board 11-15 people, with a board of perhaps 9-11 by the time the doors open.
That might sound like a lot to start. But, it’s what’s needed in order to have public credibility, the right mix of skills, and enough people to have functioning committees capable of accomplishing significant work in between meetings.
It is a natural tendency to want to start with a small, tightly knit and tightly controlled group, but there is so much work to do in the early years that a board of 5-7 is a mistake.
6. Lack of previous governance experience
Many founding boards run into problems because they do not have enough board members with previous governance experience; and because their school leader has no previous governance experience.
In addition, the school leader needs to have the time and the desire to assist in creating effective governance.
7. Lack of functioning committees
One of the key transitions that need to take place as the board moves from a founding board to a sustainable governing board is having functioning committees.
In the founding phase, it’s often necessary to do most of the work as a committee of the whole.
But, by the beginning of the first year of operation, it’s imperative that functioning committees emerge to tackle strategic issues in greater depth, and with more specific expertise, than the full board will have time for during regularly scheduled board meetings.
To have an effective board it is essential that substantive work is done by committees in between full board meetings.
8. Being too dependent on a lead founder
One dynamic individual leads the founding of most charter schools.
Sometimes, this person is the chair of the board. But, more often than not, it’s the school leader or CEO.
The board needs to transition to taking the lead in governing and to ensure that they are not just being led by, or solely reacting to, the direction of this leader.
9. Underestimating the amount of fundraising that needs to happen and the board’s role in fundraising
Most charter schools need to raise a significant amount of private funds to augment the organization’s per-pupil funding.
Fundraising typically supports facility acquisition and renovation, after school programming, tutorials, enrichment and summer programs.
10. Lack of urgency
‘We’re just a start-up;’ ‘It’s only the first year;’ and, ‘It’s only the second year”, are common refrains heard from charter school founding boards.
Although it is true that the board and senior management need time for things to gel, it’s important for founding boards to know that experience tells us if a charter school is not excelling by the end of its second year, it probably won’t get there.
You only have one chance to form a strong culture of accountability and academic success. So it’s important to be relentless from the get go!
Be clear about what your high bar is. And keep insisting that your school reaches it. Your students deserve nothing short of excellence.