Before your first board meeting, you’ll want to make sure you are ready to take on the responsibilities associated with your role. This section includes tips and strategies for preparing yourself.
ADOPT THE PROPER MINDSET
To quickly become a contributing and respected board member, you should:
- Keep An Institutional Focus
Your individual concerns and desires must come second to those of the organization you govern. What’s best for the organization may be challenging, time-consuming, or – in the case of some tough budget or staff decisions – even painful for you. However, you are there to be a steward of the school. There are times when you may have to set your personal feelings aside to do what’s best for the school and the public.
- Learn All You Can
As a board member, you will encounter volumes of written reports and recommendations, financial statements, and performance data. You will need to learn to read and understand this information so you can formulate appropriate questions and make sound decisions. Take advantage of the expertise around you.
- Listen Well
As a charter school board member, you will represent multiple constituencies with a wide array of interests. It is important to open your mind to the concerns of all these individual interests. Honor the views of everyone, no matter how awkwardly or angrily they are presented to you. But always make decisions in the best interest of the school and the public.
- Communicate Carefully
It can be easy to make statements that are quick or “off the cuff.” As a board member, though, your words carry a great deal of weight with your organization and your community. Don’t be afraid to make your point, but be mindful of how you present it and never say anything you wouldn’t like to have printed on the front page of the newspaper.
- Know Your Role
You’ll read more about this later, but it bears repeating often. It is helpful for you to know where the line is between board member responsibilities and management responsibilities. This is an easy line to cross, and you must be cognizant of it at all times.
- Share Your Expertise Carefully
Often, board members have professional backgrounds that offer a unique vantage point to the entire governing body (e.g., law, finance, human resources, and curriculum development). If you have a special area of expertise, use your knowledge well but take care how you involve yourself in school projects and activities. You are there to govern, not act as unpaid counsel/accountant/ school staff person.
- Be A Team Player
The board must speak with one voice, and when a decision is made, you must work with your board colleagues to uphold and effectuate it. That’s true even if you voted against the decision in the first place. It is never productive to stand aside and/or develop an opposing faction.
KEEP AN ETHICAL FOUNDATION
Most people consider themselves fundamentally ethical and it seems improbable that you would ever seek to use your board position for personal gain. However, the fact is that board membership often does involve situations where ethics come into play, and even the appearance of a conflict of interest can be terribly problematic for both you and the charter school you represent.
As your charter school’s oversight and support agency, the Center will work closely with your board to help identify and manage potential conflicts. Included below are some general areas to consider; if you are worried or want to get more information, don’t hesitate to contact the Center at any time.
Michigan has two specific conflicts of interest statutes that apply to public schools – Incompatible Public Office and Contracts of Public Servants with Public Entities.
It is important for the board to complete due diligence as new contractual relationships are considered and to avoid conflicts or the appearance of conflicts. It is also critically important for the board to understand the interests and relationships of potential new board member nominees prior to nominating their potential new board members for consideration by the Center. The Center offers some general guidelines to help you identify potential board candidates on pages 78-79.
INCOMPATIBLE PUBLIC OFFICE
The potential for incompatible public office applies to situations where a public school board member is simultaneously serving in another elected or appointed public office.
An incompatible public office situation can arise when a person holds two or more public offices at the same time. The law defines it as a situation that results in any one of the following during the course of that person’s transaction of official duties:
- The subordination of one public office by another.
- The supervision of one public office by another.
- A breach of duty of public office.
The Incompatible Public Office statute specifically prohibits a public school officer or employee from simultaneously holding two or more incompatible offices. The board should engage its legal counsel and/or work with the Center to obtain further guidance if this type of situation arises.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
A conflict of interest is defined as an instance in which a public official’s decisions are influenced by his/her personal interests. To help guard against these conflicts, the Center has instituted a conflict of interest disclosure process.
As a charter school board member, you will be required to prepare and submit an annual conflict of interest disclosure form, which can be found under the “Resources” section of the Center’s Web site at: www.TheCenterForCharters.org.
As a board member, it is critical for you to make a habit of reflecting upon both current and potential relationships to ensure the charter public school board remains conflictfree. This is one area where it is definitely better to err on the side of caution, as even seemingly innocent acts can create a conflict problem. For example, agreements where no exchange of value takes place are still considered contracts and can get a board member into hot water. What’s more, all aspects of the contracting process are covered, which means that even if the board member’s role is limited to directly or indirectly negotiating, representing or soliciting a contract, they may find themselves in jeopardy.
With respect to the appearance of conflicts, The Honorable Frank Kelley, Former Attorney General of the State of Michigan, has written:
“The spirit behind the law and public policy of this state in regard to conflicts of interest is that the temptation of impropriety should be avoided, as well as actual impropriety, between government officials and private individuals. Members of governmental boards and agencies at all levels must at all times be scrupulously cognizant of their position of public trust in relation to their private business dealings. If the latter would tempt them to color the performance of their public responsibilities, then they would be in violation of the spirit of the conflict of interest laws in this state.”
KNOW YOUR SAFEGUARDS
In exchange for your service and stewardship, there are legal and financial protections for your work as a charter school board member. This section covers the basics.
Michigan’s governmental immunity statute affords charter school board members broad immunity from tort liability.
In general, the act provides that each member of a board, council, commission, or statutorily-created task force of a governmental agency shall be immune from tort liability for personal injury or property damage the member causes while in the course of service. The following stipulations apply:
- The member is acting or reasonably believes he or she is acting within the scope of his or her authority.
- The governmental agency is engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function.
- The member’s conduct does not amount to gross negligence that is the proximate cause of the injury or damage. Gross negligence is defined as conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.
Whether a charter school board member acted within the scope of his or her authority while in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function, and whether he or she was grossly negligent, can become factual questions during the course of litigation. This means that it may be necessary for a charter school board member to participate in the defense of lawsuits brought against him or her or the board itself, in order to establish sufficient facts to resolve such actions.
A key factor in any such litigation will be whether the charter public school board member acted within the scope of his or her authority while discharging a governmental function. This can become a key issue in actions for libel, slander, and tortuous interference with contractual relations or other intentional tort causes of action.
Be sure to contact the board’s legal counsel and/or the Center if you are concerned about this type of action against you or the school.
All Michigan charter public schools are required to maintain minimum levels of insurance coverage. As a board member, you may be afforded certain protections from liability based on the policies held by your school.
To help protect the boards of the charter schools it authorizes, Central Michigan University’s Charter Contract requires each school to obtain School Leaders Liability insurance of $1 million per occurrence and $3 million aggregate. There are additional insurance requirements that can be found in the Charter Contract.
BALANCE YOUR RESPONSIBILITES… AND YOUR TIME
Your involvement as a charter school board member may feel somewhat daunting at first. A charter school can generate a lot of documents which should be read, comprehended and digested prior to each board meeting. What’s more, board subcommittee meeting participation, attendance at school events, and contact from various constituents require time and attention. So, how do you manage it all?
- Don’t Go It Alone
Divide and share responsibilities with your other colleagues on the board. In addition, you can get advice and input from your peers who may have more experience reviewing certain types of documentation. Finally, your school leader will likely be a good source of information as you orient yourself to your responsibilities. Use your team!
- Understand Your Board Policies
These policies are there to help you understand how your school is designed to operate. If your school is new and does not yet have board policies, the very act of developing or adapting them will be a great lesson in how the school’s responsibilities will be carried out, and what the role of the board is. See page 27 of this document for more information about board policies.
- Know (And Respect) The Lines Of Authority
The school’s management is there to carry out daily operations. If a constituent is asking you to engage in an operational issue, proceed with care. Work with your management, and limit your role according to the specific circumstance at hand.
- Take Advantage Of Training Opportunities
The Center, the National Charter Schools Institute, and other organizations exist to provide you with leadership development and support. What you’ll gain in knowledge and skill will more than offset the time you invest.
Knowing Where You are Headed
Knowing the Terrain
Managing Your Assets
Sending and Receiving Messages
Laying the Trail
Administering First Aid
Seeking Help if You’re Lost
Building the Team
Knowing When You Have Arrived
Communicating with Base Camp