Moving Into Private School Leadership

Type: Article
Topics: School Administrator Magazine

March 01, 2018

Contractual considerations for the retiring public school administrator when transitioning into the independent school sector
After a career in public school administration, Charles Hoots became headmaster of Wayne Academy, an independent school in Waynesboro, Miss.

After working in the public schools of Illinois for more than 35 years, I retired in June 2014. I was ready to step back and find a job less stressful than serving as a principal or district-level administrator in a high-poverty urban system.

My employment options in Illinois were limited because of the rules of the retirement system, which restricted the annuitant to no more than 100 days of work per academic year in the public system. In considering public- and private-sector options in-state and out, I discovered the independent school sector, especially in the South, offered many opportunities.

I landed a position quickly as head of schools for a private, faith-based school near Baton Rouge, La. This was a great opportunity and excellent learning experience.

Practical Lessons
Based on my transition from public to private, I would offer this advice to others considering such a move.

No. 1: Do not assume private schools operate in the same way as public schools. They differ vastly.
My former experiences did not take into account how private schools are governed and the expectations that members of the board of control — a typical name for a governing body at an independent school — hold for the head of school, headmaster or principal. One must clearly define those expectations as quickly as possible.

Private boards of control typically use a business management model, which differs significantly from a well-defined educational model that public school districts typically follow. The private sector hires and fires at will. Private boards hold similar expectations when dealing with poor performance of school staff.

Many private boards believe struggling teachers should be dismissed immediately with the head of school hiring someone else to take over. Boards often fail to acknowledge the reality that teachers are hard to find in the middle of the year, that certified science and foreign language teachers are almost impossible to find and, unless you find an outstanding substitute, the students in the dismissed teacher’s classroom will suffer academically. Due process is not usually a consideration of a private school’s board.

No. 2: To clarify board/administrative expectations, carefully negotiate a contract that defines the scope of the administrator’s governance powers and the board’s role in governance.
Private school boards do not necessarily believe it is the administration’s job to handle the institution’s day-to-day operations. You’ll want a complete job description written in language that is not nebulous that grants you the authority to run the school’s operations.

Somewhere in your contract and job description, you’ll need clauses that:

» State that the head of school has the responsibility of administering daily affairs. The board’s responsibility is to create policy that enables the head of school to administer the school. Each party should pledge to respect the duties and job functions of the other.

» Stipulate that only one employee — the head of school — reports directly to the board of control. All other employees must report to the head or his/her designee. This governance structure keeps the chain of command clearly defined and establishes administrative supervision authority as supreme.

» Detail procedures that clearly define how complaints from any source are to be handled. Your contractual language needs to state that “all complaints brought to the board by any person be redirected to the head of school for resolution.” The head of school then would investigate the complaint and/or assign a staff member to investigate the complaint, and would report the results of the investigation to the board president. The idea here is to establish the protocol that complaints need to be handled by the administration and not by board members. You also are establishing the practice whereby the people making the complaint cannot circumvent the administration.

» Include a clause that the authority of the board of control is corporate in nature and exists only at a duly constituted meeting of the board. No individual board member should have any individual authority outside of that meeting. This prevents board members from believing that individual members have the right to give specific directions to any employee that conflict with any previous directions communicated to a school employee by the head of school.

» State clearly that all directives from the board to the head of school must come from the president/chairperson of the board of control. In every instance, the president or chairperson should be the spokesperson of the board. Having one person communicating directives from the board to the head keeps the message clear and prevents the head from receiving confusing or contradictory directives from individual board members.

» Delineate that the head of schools shall be invited to all executive sessions with the following exceptions: (a) discussion of the evaluation of the head of school and/or his or her contract; (b) discussion of a legal claim by the head of school against the institution or board of control; or (c) discipline of a sitting board member.

Participation in executive sessions allows the school head to guide the board in its decision making and keeps the head in the loop.

» Incorporate language in the contract that gives the head of school the right to hire, evaluate, discipline, suspend, with or without pay, and recommend the termination of any and all employee(s).

» Include contractual language that gives the head of school the right to organize, reorganize or change the administrative organizational chart, as well as the academic structure and operating process of all programs.

» Insist on contractual language that guarantees the head the right to participate in the development of any evaluation instrument to be used to assess the head’s performance. The head should receive written language guaranteeing him or her the right to participate in creating all protocols concerning the evaluation process. This should include all timelines and goal setting and the process that will used in the evaluation. Never permit the board to evaluate you using an instrument you have never seen, using a process with which you are unfamiliar.

» Ensure it is clearly stated that the head of schools is an ex-officio member of all standing board committees. This guarantees you receive invitations to all committee meetings and prevents a board from meeting to discuss issues outside of your knowledge. If you have an assistant administrator, it is an acceptable practice to send this person to represent you at such meetings, but the protocol asks the designee to report back to you the results of the meeting.

No. 3: Don’t assume the head of school and board of control share a common vocabulary relating to school matters.
Making sure that you are able to communicate clearly with your board through use of a common terminology avoids misunderstandings and conflicts.

I got myself in trouble once by making a comment about the end of the year. The board member thought I was referring to Dec. 31 when I was referring to June 30. This lack of denotative definitions contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust that never really was resolved.

No. 4: Practice your counting skills before the board meetings.
A highly effective superintendent I once worked for told me the most important skill that a superintendent in Illinois possesses is the ability to count to four. His reasoning was that the superintendent needed to secure four votes when dealing with a seven-person board to be able to accomplish anything.

This same management principle applies to private schools’ boards of control — except there are usually more board members. Count your votes beforehand.

Smooth Transition

A career in private school administration for a retired public school educator can be fulfilling. Public school leaders have a vast knowledge base that can be applied easily to an independent school.

Incorporating these contractual recommendations, getting your role clearly defined, communicating with a common vocabulary and counting your votes ahead of time will help you enjoy a comparatively stress-free transition to your new role as head of a private school.

Additional Resources

The National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C., publishes information about the headmaster role and job vacancies in the independent school sector.

Among its products, the association has produced the “NAIS Principles of Good Practice” about recommended school operations.

The NAIS membership includes about 1,500 independent private K-12 schools in the United States.