Knowing the Terrain


A charter school board’s responsibility and main charge is organizational governance, meaning your board holds the ultimate power within the organization and is responsible for its overall effectiveness. Conversely, this means the board is also accountable for the results the school achieves or fails to achieve. In simple terms, your board is the primary entity responsible for ensuring that the kids in your school are learning and that the school’s money is well spent.

This power and accountability is concentrated in one simple act: a vote. No other action carries the weight, authority or consequence of an official board vote that is taken and recorded in the minutes.

As mentioned several times already, for any school board to operate effectively, it must be clear about its own responsibilities and the responsibilities that have been delegated to management. One way to distinguish the difference between roles and responsibilities of the board and management is to say that the board’s focus should be on measuring and supporting operational outcomes (the ends), and management is responsible for the methods by which the outcomes are achieved (the means).

Below are some universal governance responsibilities and practices that belong to the board.


A statement of mission and purpose should articulate your school’s goals, means, and primary constituents served. The mission is a vital component of the Charter Contract. It is the board’s responsibility to implement the mission and ensure congruence between decisions made and the core values of the charter public school. Each individual board member should understand the mission and ensure that they believe in it and can support it.

Please refer to page 10 for more discussion of a school’s mission and the board’s role in effectively supporting it.


Next to setting and supporting your school’s mission, selecting your school’s management is the one decision that will have the greatest impact.

Your board has two primary options relative to management. First, you can directly hire a school leader who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school, just as in a conventional K-12 district. Alternatively, some charter school boards opt to contract with an Educational Service Provider (ESP) for all or a portion of their operations.

CMU has developed policies outlining requirements to be satisfied before charter school boards and ESPs enter into a final agreement. These policies address the roles and responsibilities of the ESP and the board as they relate to contract development and negotiations. All ESP agreements must be in compliance with these policies before the final agreement is executed. Please visit www. for more information.

When considering this decision (if it has not already been made), the board must first decide the level of operations it desires to offer for contract. Some ESPs offer complete turnkey approaches to administration – they will hire staff, run the school, and bear responsibility for all daily activities at the school site. Other ESPs will perform only limited services, such as the hiring of staff or the management of accounting, compliance and reporting functions. The board should do its homework and have a clear understanding of current needs and objectives as these alternatives are considered. It is very appropriate for boards to enlist the support of experienced outside organizations, including the Center, to help navigate this process and prepare to contract for services.

As the board prepares to make its own choice relative to management, you must develop a clear idea of your objectives and undertake a careful search process to find the most qualified individual or group for the job. The board may benefit from experienced advisors during this process. A wide variety of individuals and organizations, ranging from peer advisors on another charter school board to organizations like the National Charter Schools Institute are available to assist.

Regardless of the decision you make, the board should ensure that the school’s management team shares a passion for the school’s unique mission. The board should also make certain that management has the policy and professional support it needs from the board, to help further the goals of the school.


Institutionalizing the vision and mission of a charter public school through legally researched, comprehensive policies is a fundamental responsibility of the board. These policies should be documented for easy reference and should be reviewed regularly for necessary updates and to ensure they remain applicable.

Please note that the Center offers the opportunity to obtain, adapt and update a set of legally researched policies to all schools authorized by Central Michigan University. This service is provided at no cost to the board through the National Charter Schools Institute.

Legal Duties of Boards

A charter public school board member must meet certain standards of conduct in relationship to the organization. These essential standards are referred to as Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience:

  • Duty of Care

    A board member must exercise reasonable care when making decisions as a steward of the charter public school by taking the “care” that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances.

  • The Duty of Loyalty

    A board member must have loyalty to the charter public school. Conflicts of interest, including the appearance of conflicts of interest, must be avoided when participating in making decisions. This includes personal and professional conflicts of interest with other organizations to which a charter public school board member is connected. The duty of loyalty also includes a commitment to keep confidential matters confidential.

  • The Duty of Obedience

    A board member must act in a way that is consistent with the goals of the charter public school, being faithful to the mission and fulfilling the public’s trust that the state’s funds will be used to fulfill the educational mission of the school.


As stewards of the charter public school, you and your colleagues on the board must be prepared to serve as active partners with management and the Center in strategic thinking.

Working together, your partnership can generate high quality action plans that help advance your mission and hold yourselves accountable for results. These planning activities also provide an excellent forum for engaging staff, parents and other stakeholders, and can be a valuable tool for enriching your school community. Developing plans that set appropriate milestones and benchmarks along the way will also help ensure that progress is being made toward achieving goals and realizing the school’s mission.

The board should work in partnership with management to identify all needs and priorities related to the school’s mission. Adequate resources can then be allocated through board action. In order to carry out its objectives and remain accountable to the taxpayers, the board of directors must approve an annual budget and ensure that proper financial controls are in place.


Overseeing the school’s finances is one of the other core responsibilities you will carry out as a charter school board. You can best fulfill this role by asking good questions and expecting quality answers.

Information about Michigan’s public school funding structure and the tools, resources and reports you’ll be working with is provided on page 36 of this field guide.


It is the board’s responsibility to ensure that the total organization is effective in achieving its mission and efficient in using its resources. The board should begin this periodic discussion by evaluating its success as a board against mission and objectives as set forth in the Charter Contract.

The board should use the same process when evaluating its management team. Begin with the ends in mind, and ask whether management is effectively fulfilling the mission and objectives established by the board.


Exceptional charter school boards produce exceptional results and frame their work around proven best practices. This type of board work only happens through a well designed, thought-out board development plan. Much like teachers and administrators require development to hone their skills, board members should discuss and seek out opportunities for their development in performing governance responsibilities.

Boards should also consider creating a governance committee that addresses recruitment, orientation, education, and evaluation for the board. This type of planned development is critical to maintaining a healthy board environment and remaining focused on the true objective—student achievement.


In Michigan’s charter public school community, the management team goes by many different names. Of course, much depends on whether the board has engaged an Educational Service Provider (ESP), or whether a more traditional “self-managed” structure is used. However, even beyond this distinction, terms like “principal,” “superintendent,” and “school leader” are used interchangeably. For purposes of this document, we will refer to the school leadership role as “Chief Executive,” or “CEO.”

We have already described the responsibilities that belong to you and your colleagues on the board. Now, for comparison purposes, we will explore the CEO’s responsibilities.


The CEO is responsible for carrying out the things the board said it would do at the policy level. Operational matters, student academic and behavioral decisions, parent communications, project management and a host of other functions necessary to carry out board policy are delegated to the CEO.

The CEO is also the first line of defense when it comes to identifying gaps and recommending improvements to board-adopted policies. From time to time, there are unforeseen implementation issues related to a particular policy. The CEO can help rapidly identify and support the board in making necessary changes.


The CEO acts as instructional leader for the school, in accordance with the board’s mission and adopted policies. By ensuring appropriate teaching and learning, and keeping abreast of trends and issues in K-12 education, the CEO is able to help the board respond to the educational needs of its students and act as an effective sounding board and leader for staff.


The CEO recommends candidates and contractors for employment by the school. In addition, the CEO is responsible for ensuring that teachers, other administrators, and support staff are effectively managed and evaluated according to their performance. In exchange, the CEO is held accountable for all staff actions, given that he/she is presumably directing and/or monitoring their work.

In this role, the CEO also acts as a central part of the school’s “chain of command,” responding to and addressing concerns from parents, staff and other stakeholders. Any concern that comes to the board from one of its constituencies should do so only after all attempts have been made to work through the CEO.


Based on his/her daily experiences and accumulated knowledge, the CEO typically makes recommendations to the board pertaining to budget, curriculum and staffing decisions. The CEO also carries out the budget and spending policies of the board, and is responsible for providing the board with complete and accurate financial reports generated through a sound and transparent internal controls process.


The CEO is responsible for submitting financial, academic and other information to the Center, as well as other applicable state and federal organizations. The board may approve the content of many of these reports, but it is ultimately the CEO that presses the necessary buttons and submits this information to the appropriate agencies.


The CEO functions as a liaison between the school board and the community, informing each about pressing issues being experienced on both sides. The CEO is the first line of communication between the board and the community and, simultaneously, the CEO often brings issues from the community before the board to be addressed.

As administrative, financial, compliance and policy challenges arise, the CEO also is expected to bring these issues before the board so they may be addressed in a timely fashion.


Knowing Where You are Headed
Being Prepared
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

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