Almost every charter school that opens can credit one to three people who made it happen. These founders were the people who gave up personal time to write the charter school application, attended countless meetings and trainings, and carried the bulk of the load for everything that needed to be done. When the charter school opens there needs to be a transition away from the organization being the founder's "baby" to a sustainable organization. But how can that be done without alienating the founder or losing the original vision before the school is firmly established? The key to this transition rests with the other board members.
The entire board should operate as one, without individuals making decisions absent full board approval. The board should meet only once a month to physically limit their time together and reinforce the administrator's role in leading the school on a day-to-day basis. The board should focus on writing policies during the first year, even though they may be tempted to carry out many of the operational duties they began assuming before the school had employees. This could take the form of "committee work" or simply individuals on the board who seem irreplacable.
When the school opens, the founders must transition from operating independently doing "all that needs to be done" over to being one member of a board. Hopefully there are numerous board members with the expertise, skill and experience to live up to their responsibilities. Board leadership should be spread across every member.
Typically when the entire board is developing its first strategic plan is a good time to refocus and objectively examine where the board should ultimately govern. There will be a transition period, but there should be progress made on turning over operational management to school staff.
Sometimes founders express concern that there aren't enough qualified people to volunteer for key responsibilities and use this as justification for not relinquishing some of the tasks they've been doing all along. People need to be asked to help with specific projects. Founders who confidently complete responsibilities, such as overseeing facility renovation, often don't communicate their need for assistance. Moreover, they're not building a sustainable foundation for the school's future. Once the school opens, founders should focus their work on preparing for when founders are no longer on the board.
A few tips to transition from leadership resting largely with key founders are:
* Write policies -- lots of policies. Put everything in writing so that future boards have a record for their own decision-making. Founders want to convey their values for the school as the school's culture and reputation are shaped. That's best done through policies.
* If not everyone on the board is carrying their weight--replace them. Founders need to ensure the board is operating as one, which means every board member needs to fulfill his/her individual role.
* Communicate often and honestly with the administrator. Primarily the communication should serve to develop a trusting relationship that will be needed for future crises or difficult decisions. It's important for the founder to reinforce the administrator's leadership role both personally and in front of staff members or parents.
* Put structures in place for the board to govern through policy. This includes using a strategic plan, holding effective and productive meetings, and continually taking a step back to look objectively if the board should even be addressing a particular issue. Sometimes the most effective way for a governing board to communicate its role, is to not address something. A parent unhappy with the administrator's tardy policy will understand the administrator makes daily operational decisions, that are supported by the board, if the board refuses to consider a change to the administrator's policy.
* The entire board should increase their capacity to lead the school by seeking training. Having someone with experience in charter school governance, who is outside the organization, give another perspective to the board is beneficial in a number of ways. Most charter school board members don't know how other charter boards operate so they don't know if their board is "normal." Professional development for the board lays a foundation for mutual understanding that increases the board's effectiveness.
Many founders have personal characteristics that allowed for the charter school to be created. These characteristics may include tenacity, an entrepenurial perspective, a willingness to take risks or an willingness to take a "no" answer. Even if the founder can stay on the board for the first several years of the charter school, there will be a point when the founder leaves. The school community should honor and respect the role the founder played in creating the school and take the steps necessary to achieve the next season of the school's life.