Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Charter School Board Presidents, Part 2

Being a good board President entails knowing what the role IS and IS NOT. The President doesn't have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the board. Rather, the President is the communication hub for the board.

When a safety issue arises at school, the administration should call the board President. In turn, the President will communicate with the rest of the governing board. Further, the President may act on behalf of the board when duly authorized to do so, such as signing a contract or a letter.

One of the most important roles of the board President is to set meeting agendas, in collaboration with the school leader. When I served as board President, I had a regular monthly meeting with the Principal where we put together the agenda. A week following that meeting, board packet items had to be submitted to me and then a week before the monthly board meeting, I sent out those packets to my fellow board members.

Having an annual board calendar is very helpful for board President's to know when a routine item, such as approving the annual budget, should be on the board agenda. Moreover, dates in board policies should be on the annual calendar.

A friend of mine, who serves as board President at his charter school, created an Excel spreadsheet with the entire year's meeting agendas laid out on each tab. There was also a tab where the reasons for going into Executive Sessions were listed, which allowed him to cut and paste in the specific statutory reference when it was needed. At the bottom of each agenda, there was the "annual calendar" list of board policy items that needed to be addressed in that particular month. This was the rationale for why specific items were on each agenda and would also serve as a guide for future board Presidents. I used this spreadsheet when I was working with a charter school board last year and found it to be a very useful, and practical, tool.

Oftentimes, the board President needs to communicate mundane things with the board such as future meeting dates. It's convenient to do this via email, but this is also a good time to remember the limitations on board member communications as a result of the Open Meetings law, (a.k.a. Sunshine Law). There cannot be an electronic "discussion." This means a one-way communication from the President to the rest of the board is permissible. However, board members may NOT hit "Reply All" because that would begin a "discussion" under the law.

The board should authorize the President to sign specific contracts, such as the charter contract, on behalf of the organization. Even though the Bylaws probably authorize the President to represent the corporation in this manner, it's best to have the entire board approve the contract and authorize the President to sign it. The same goes for annual teacher agreements.

The board President should never take it upon him/herself to make decisions for the board. The board acts as a whole, with one voice. The President communicates that "one voice" to the school leader, parents, students, staff, and the school community. While the President is oftentimes privy to information the rest of the board is not made aware of, that should all be communicated to the rest of the board to ensure the board, as a whole, makes wise decisions.

Good Presidents work on behalf of their board members to ensure good lines of communication. Not only do the other board members need that type of leadership, the school leader does, also.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Charter School Board Presidents, Part 1

Charter school board President's are typically someone whose children attend the charter school and they were happy parents involved in the classroom or chaperoning field trips. Then, somehow, they went from involved parents to being on the governing board to being the President. In very little time, inexperienced, well-meaning people are thrust into the role of chairing meetings, drafting board agendas and serving as the chief communication link with the school leader. At this point, many people feel like they're in over their head.

This new series, especially for board Presidents, is designed to break down the myriad of responsibilities associated with being the President and equip that person with the resources needed to fulfill the role well.

It's important to note the difference between the role of the Chair and President. The Chair presides at board meetings. That's it. Nothing else. The President is the individual that sets the agenda, posts the agenda, meets monthly with the school leader, maintains the board's calendar, ensures proper communication between the school leader and the rest of the board, acts on behalf of the full board (when authorized) to sign corporate documents, and is the first person to address improper board behavior.

Some charter schools have both a Chair and a President. Others have only a President. Either way is fine. Personally, I prefer the two roles be separate because as the board President for seven years, I liked being able to focus on the agenda and what needed to be accomplished or scheduled for the following meeting rather than being focused on if a "friendly amendment" should be a substitute motion or an amendment to the main motion.

Since this post deals with chairing board meetings, I will refer to the individual leading the meeting as Chair.

First, brush up on Robert's Rules of Order. Chairing a charter school governing board meeting means the Chair is the final authority in making decisions about what occurs during meetings. Here's a quick guide for easy reference during meetings. Most people aren't very familiar with anything other than the basics of Robert's Rules so when the board Chair knows enough to be comfortable with how to chair proceedings, it instills confidence in his/her leadership. The most important reason to use Robert's Rules for every meeting is because it's very clear what action has taken place and where the board is in the process of making decisions. There's also a Question and Answer guide for the most commonly-asked questions from charter school board members.

The second most important thing to remember in chairing a charter school board meeting is to make sure everything is done transparently and is properly communicated. Take the time to explain what's happening to audience members. However, while a board meeting is a public meeting, the public should not be involved in the meeting. Don't begin the practice of inviting comment at any time during the meeting other than the posted Public Comment agenda item as it will slow down meetings, create misunderstanding about the board's role and often causes hard feelings. It's the nature of charter school parents to believe they "run" the school rather than that they have a "parent governed" school.

Board members want to know that their volunteer time spent attending meetings and serving on board committees is worthwhile. This means having productive board meetings that start and end on time. In order to accomplish productive meetings, it's essential for the Chair to ensure the pace of the meeting is brisk without making board members feel like they were able to speak their opinion on a motion. The Chair can establish a norm that each board member is allowed to speak twice to each motion, but no more. Further, the Chair should have it prearranged with the Vice Chair, or another board member, that when discussions are getting bogged down, the Vice Chair "calls the question." At this point discussion ceases and the motion to call the question is voted on. If it passes, the motion on the table is immediately voted on without any further discussion. Usually it only takes once or twice of someone calling the question before the rest of the board gets the message that they need to be succinct and to the point and then be ready to vote on the motion. The Chair further sends the message that board member time is valuable and therefore will be respected.

Many boards find it effective to briefly discuss pros and cons of the meetings at the end of each meeting. This allows board members to give feedback for something they'd like changed or make suggestions for a portion of the board's work that didn't go well. Effective charter school boards also evaluate themselves, as a whole, at least annually using an instrument that addresses all aspects of the board's work.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Charter School Financial Oversight

by Eileen Johnston

Charter schools are usually started by parents who are engaged in the education of their children.  They are the parents who are committed to supporting their children in any and every way they can.  They are passionate about ensuring that their student is exposed to the methodology that they believe will be the best experience for their child.  They likely have experience in education; however, generally they are not accountants or bookkeepers, and very likely know nothing about accounting (including governmental, for profit and not for profit accounting).  In fact, the skill set and qualities that make for a great Principal do not necessarily include the ability to develop a budget and use it as an effective management tool.

There are networking opportunities available for the new Principal and/or charter school accountant.  CDE has a Business Manager's networking group that meets for a day once each quarter for professional development and offers the opportunity for attendees to share ideas and experiences.  This year there is a track for those who are new to charter schools while continuing education for those with more charter school business experience.  But this is not enough!

Authorizers must take an active role in overseeing how their charter schools are doing with providing stakeholder’s timely and accurate financial information.  New charter schools need assistance with setting up their chart of accounts and understanding what you expect and require from them.  It is not enough to check and see that they are complying with state financial transparency requirements.  It is imperative that authorizers take the time to actually read the financial statements that the schools are sending to the district and posting on their website.  It is better for all concerned when potential problems can be addressed proactively rather than reactively.