Board-Savvy Superintendent

Board Committees as the Governing Engines

by Doug Eadie

Chief executive officers in the proprietary and nonprofit sectors have found that well-designed board standing committees can serve as very effective governing engines, producing several important outcomes. This is true among boards of education as well.

Above all else, standing committees can divide the labor of governing into chewable chunks, enabling board members to delve into governing matters in greater detail than is possible at the full board level. As such, board members are better prepared for full board meetings, which ultimately improves the quality of board decision making.

In-depth committee work builds governing (not administrative) expertise among board members, while also enhancing their satisfaction and strengthening their feelings of ownership and commitment. Board decisions that are supported by detailed standing committee work are firmer because of the ownership that is built at the committee level.

Well-designed standing committees are actually one of the most effective safeguards you have as a superintendent against school board micro-management of district administrative and educational affairs because the committees focus your board’s attention on governing work.

Committees also can be a reliable vehicle for building and maintaining a close, positive and enduring board-executive partnership, primarily because committee meetings facilitate interaction at a deeper level than is possible at full board meetings. Committee sessions also provide a more casual forum that’s removed from the public scrutiny and higher pressures of the regular board business meeting.

Well-Oiled Bodies

Over the years we have learned some practical ways to ensure that standing committees really do function as powerful “governing engines” for your school board. The most important design feature of all is to ensure there are only two or three committees that are organized along broad governing lines, such as planning and development--each of which cuts across all of the school district’s educational programs and administrative operations. Organizing your board’s committees along broad governing lines satisfies a key principal of organizational design: Form must follow function.

The polar opposite approach is to make committees merely a reflection of the narrower educational and administrative functions of your school district organization--curriculum and instruction, buildings and grounds, personnel, and so on. This setup is notoriously ineffective from the governing standpoint as it invites micro-management. This old-fashioned silo approach to committee structure inevitably leads to a board that is more of a high-level technical advisory body than a true governing entity. It also encourages board meddling in details better left to the superintendent and executives.

Another important design feature of an effective committee structure is requiring that items reach the full board agenda only through the standing committees. This includes informational briefings as well as action items. Reports should be presented at board meetings by committee chairs, not administrative staff.

Substantive Agendas

Over the past 20 years, I have seen a structure of two “meat and potatoes” standing committees work well in handling critical governing work: planning and development and performance oversight and evaluation.

The board’s planning and development committee is responsible for paying detailed attention to board involvement in making all strategic and operational planning decisions in academics, administration and finances, from values and vision updates at the most strategic to adoption of the annual budget at the most operational.

The planning and development committee would design and host the annual board-superintendent-executive team strategic planning retreat. This committee also should review and recommend board action on key planning products, such as the updated mission statement.

While the planning and development committee focuses on the next academic year and beyond, the performance oversight and evaluation committee focuses on what is happening now and what has happened in the past, paying close attention to monitoring educational, administrative and financial performance reports and reviewing longer-term evaluations of educational effectiveness.

In addition, this committee often serves as the board’s audit committee, reviewing and recommending action on the school district’s annual independent audit report. It also recommends action on operational items already provided for in the adopted budget, such as contract awards and faculty appointments.

Virtual Committees

Even if your school board is small--say 5 members or fewer--you still can apply the concepts underlying the committee structure without actually creating standing committees.

At the very least, your school board’s agenda can be divided into two segments: planning and development and performance oversight and evaluation. To further divide the governing labor without establishing committees, the board might meet twice monthly: once as a committee of the whole dealing with distinct agendas for planning and performance oversight and a second time in plenary session to conduct the board’s regular business meeting.

Doug Eadie is CEO of Doug Eadie & Co., 4375 Wheatland Way, Palm Harbor, FL 34685. E-mail: He is the author of Five Habits of High-Impact School Boards (ScarecrowEducation).