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Chaim Y. Botwinick

The Jewish Day School Board of Directors: A Training Model in Need of Change

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Over the past several decades, our Jewish day schools and yeshivot have experienced a seismic shift in the manner in which they identify, recruit, train and position their school  lay (Board) leadership.

Many governance initiatives in these schools aspire to model  and replicate best practices in private education; This is due in large measure to the recent proliferation of studies, surveys and research which strongly correlate quality  board  governance and best practices with high levels of policy setting and standards  of academic excellence. It is also the result of a variety of new, progressive  and innovative board induction, engagement and training models which are now being offered by a growing number of training institutions and school management venues.

In spite of this relatively recent proliferation of school  Board development and induction programs and interest, there are many schools that view board governance  as an essential aspect of schooling, but do not view governance as an important imperative or top priority.Yet, there are still many Jewish  day schools and yeshivot which  disregard the significance of board leadership or governance but rather view school board activities as being either peripheral or  tangential to a  school’s viability or academic success..

Although we can never expect all of our day school and yeshivot to commit themselves to creating strong, effective and high impact boards at the same levels of rigor or intensity, it is nevertheless disconcerting that to date, many of our schools still do not accord the attention high level  governance deserves in their schools.  As a close colleague recently shared with me following one of my board development workshops  …  “the seriousness in which our Jewish day schools view board governance is like a mixed under-cooked cholent with no set standards” —  not a very flattering, positive endorsement,  perspective or description.

These diverse and disparate perspectives are based upon several factors ranging from school leadership who possess a rudimentary  understanding and an  appreciation of the important role that lay governance has  in supporting educational excellence;  to the complete polar opposite, where schools do not regard high functioning governing boards as essential, let alone a top priority..

Having said that, there are a growing number of Jewish day schools and yeshivot that pay lip service to the importance of  board governance and board leadership. They understand and appreciate the role of the board conceptually and intellectually but do not come close to exhibiting any modicum of success in moving their boards forward in any meaningful manner.

In my practice as an executive leadership coach, I have observed  that for the majority of principals and heads of school, the role and function of a school board is viewed as being valued. But for many, it is  viewed as a necessary or required burden. This disparity is due in large measure a lack of clarity or a clear definition of differential roles; and the lack of conscious board accountability and transparency between the board and the senior executive. It also represents a lack of professional and lay leadership training, experience and  understanding required to ensure the development of a strong and effective board and its tremendous benefit to the current and future vitality, viability and growth of the school.

Creating An Effective and Meaningful  School Board Culture: Setting the Stage

As indicated, there are  many Jewish day schools and yeshivot which truly understand and appreciate the unique and critical  importance and role of a school board; and  there  are those schools that  do not, due to a lack of knowledge and understanding. Yet there are others that chose not to promote, create or even support board governance  because they want to avoid  being burdened with yet another significant administrative task and responsibility, requiring serious attention.

Although this may appear to be somewhat of a generalization, I have found  throughout my career that those school heads or principals who are self confident, vision driven and forward thinking, are usually those who embrace and celebrate their board’s activities and accomplishments.  Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. There are those who continuously   shy away from creating strong, viable  and supportive boards because they feel a sense of insecurity or a need to control or micromanage every aspect of the institution.  This finding has its own implications and suggests an important topic for another blog.

In rare cases where there is no functional school board (by design, not default), we see  heads of school, principals or in select cases the Rosh HaYeshiva and a President  who assume the full gamut of governance  leadership roles and responsibilities. This is not a very healthy governance model and represents  one that can lead to acrimony, lack of trust and limited transparency or accountability.

In cases where there is no functional board, the first order of business should be for the senior school professional and  lay leader to understand conceptually the advantages to the school and benefits of creating a high impact effective board.

Putting to a side the fact that most of these schools are non-profit legal entities  which are in fact required to have functioning boards, the lack of board  functionality and effectiveness exacerbates the institution’s ability and capacity to leverage federal and state funding…..and, in select cases, foundation support.

It is therefore critical  that the head of school and principal, together with the president of the board and an assigned  Board executive committee, participate in a series of informational meetings, training sessions  or coaching processes  which clearly detail the role, function and structure of a school board, its advantages and best practices . These orientation and training  sessions will be critical if  leadership are expected to help create, inspire and lead an effective school board

Once the head of school, president and executive committee  are well grounded, or are at least somewhat familiar with best board practices, a  “board in formation” (volunteers willing to participate in a board development process) , to be comprise of a minimum of eight members, will need to develop criteria for board selection and recruitment.

In order begin an effective school Board selection process, a Board Committee on Trustees will need to be tasked with the responsibility of identifying criteria for board selection. These criteria may include a wide array of attributes, characteristics,  backgrounds, aspirations and experiences.

The guidelines detailing these characteristics and attributes are somewhat global in scope, and can easily be accessed via social media platforms and business/management  digital websites.  It is therefore not necessary to repeat the list of sources in this blog.

Board Selection and Onboarding:

Today, many Jewish day school boards feel that once their board members are is in place and membership  slots are  filled, all board deliberations, policy decisions, protocols and requirements  should  progress, and run  smoothly and on automatic pilot.  This is a terrible mistake and is indeed a formula for disaster.

Irrespective of how polished, knowledgeable or experienced a board chairman or president might be, a board should never ever underestimate the requirement and demand for its ongoing board training, coaching, mentoring and guidance.

Once potential members of the board are selected, they will be required to participate in a series of extensive and intensive onboarding  training exercises and commitments. This is where my suggestion and recommendations are somewhat more stringent than other acceptable standards and practices. To be sure, thirty-five years of experience in leading schools and Jewish non-profits, has provided me with a level of understanding and commitment  which demands a more structured  and exacting board training process.

What follows may be viewed a overly ambitious, stringent and demanding. But, when it comes to board recruitment and effectiveness, the downsides in making mistakes or errors in judgement can be irreparable. This important process  should not differ from  that of  making a decision regarding the recruitment or appointment of a head of school,  principal or CEO. Once the die is cast, it is a very messy and difficult process to undo or correct, It is therefore imperative that all board members be vetted and selected carefully.

Mistakes in a board selection process, no matter how stringent or iron-clad, will always occur. But, the challenge must remain to keep these mistakes at a minimum. I have witnessed and experienced  way too many boards, institutions and  people’s reputations destroyed as a result of  not selecting the proper board/lay leadership to help lead school policy or school change. The challenge is therefore is getting it right from the get-go instead of engaging in do-overs,

Once board members are selected,  references checked and interviews completed, board members  will be required to take a Board Readiness Inventory. This inventory will measure a board candidate’s  temperament, personality, motivation and aspiration. It will also provide the Committee on Trustees with  a better sense regarding a  Board members  right fit for this important  volunteer leadership post. Finally, it provides the board candidate with a far better understanding regarding anticipated and expected  responsibilities, requirements, obligations duties.

Although there are many critical aspects to Board member selection and onboarding, I cannot overestimate the critical importance of training, training, training. There is absolutely no substitute for intensive, extensive and hands-on board leadership development and training.

School board chairs and presidents irrespective of how many years they have occupied lay leadership posts,  must also be engaged in ongoing training. Leadership requirements, changes in a school’s financial condition, demographic shifts and new board members bringing new and different perspectives to the table all require continuous training and retraining.

The following is a listing of onboarding training and development  opportunities which are imperative:

  • participating in intensive and extensive workshops and seminars relating to the role and responsibility of a school board member;
  • participating in sessions detailing the differentiated board and senior professional  roles and responsibilities;
  • participating in ongoing self reflection and  board performance assessment exercises;
  • Torah L’ishma chavruta and group  study and learning opportunities;
  • participation in a  board membe mentorship programs; and
  •  participation in school sponsored fundraising and financial resource development programs and  events;

It is recommended that the above participation becomes a requirement and a condition  for board member appointment. To be sure, they must be mandatory for all board members.

Finally, there are those who will opine that the training and onboarding requirements as presented in this blog  may be way too stringent. My response to these folks is that our field is  paved with way too many governance structures and approaches which have failed tremendously due in large measure  to a lack of experience and training as well as respect for the manner in which solid training impacts high level governance.

It is obvious that there are many important  components of effective  governance recruitment and onboarding  that are not addressed in this blog. Although these are all essential, they are eclipsed by the importance of mandatory onboarding through extensive  and intensive board leadership training.

End Note:

As we aspire to move our Jewish day school and yeshiva governance agenda forward, it is essential that we begin to respectfully challenge the wide variety of Board failures, missteps and oversights  which resulted due to a lack of  Board training and  governance standards.

To be successful and effective, 21st century school Board leadership must now begin to grapple with the wide array of governance exigencies which have been detrimental to our schools. They include a lack of clear communications, lack of a shared vision, poor policy setting practices,  the micromanaging of senior school leadership personnel and a wide range of ego-driven decision-making processes in the absence of real  facts on the ground.

These challenges do not suggest that all of our Jewish day school and yeshiva boards are ineffective or do not exhibit “islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity”. Many boards have succeeded tremendously  and  have work very methodically and  deliberately to ensure high quality and impact But unfortunately, they do not represent the majority of our schools

The challenge here should be obvious. Either we continue to move our day school and yeshiva boards forward with mixed results, or we can double-down on our efforts to ensure that our all of our day schools and yeshiva boards are anchored in excellence and best/model practice.

I vote for the latter.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011