Advice For A New Private School Board of Trustees Co-Chair?
April 25, 2021 5:38 AM   Subscribe

I've been approached to co-chair our local cooperative preschool's board of trustees, but have never served on a board before. Any advice for a newbie?

Our kids have attended a fairly large local cooperative preschool since last fall. We're involved parents, participating in activities, talking to our kids' teachers regularly, etc, but not involved with the school board other than attending a couple of virtual meetings just to see what goes on.

Last week, I was surprised to be approached to become co-chair of the board of trustees for the following school year. The school has a few returning board members but many have kids aging out of the school. Also, I am one of relatively few school parents with a legal/finance background (which I guess is at least partly why I was approached).

I have a decent sense of the responsibilities of a nonprofit board (I've even done a bit of legal work for nonprofits), but have never been on a real board before, and now am in a position where I will be leading meetings and, perhaps, making real decisions. Does anyone have any advice about where to start, things to read, ways to prepare, etc? Thank you!
posted by redondo77 to Education (7 answers total)
Ask about D&O insurance.
posted by Mid at 6:38 AM on April 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

Also, contact your insurance agent and let them know. You may want umbrella coverage if you don't have it already.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 6:42 AM on April 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You don't have any board experience and you've never been on this board previously? It seems a bit...weird, desperate, and/or not good trustee-ship that this board is asking you to take on a leadership role for them without any experience. What is the standard term of service and how many terms are you expected to serve? If the expected term is just one or two years, then getting people into leadership roles quickly makes sense. If it's a three- or four-year term with an expectation of two terms, moving people quickly into leadership roles make less sense in my experience. Is the board not allowed to have members of alumni parents? In many cases those folks are great board members, so I'm not sure why aging out of the school means they can't still participate on the board.

I've served on only one board, of a K-8 school, and I would never have wanted to take on a chair or co-chair role without understanding the dynamics, history, culture and norms. Even with a relatively small organization (ours was ~200 students), you will spend an entire year getting acclimated to how this board works, asking questions, getting to know people, and getting up to speed on finances, personnel issues, legal aspects, accrediting, history, board health (skills, gaps, sacred cows, etc.) that I doubt you can do the most effective job as co-chair without having that history and experience. In my last year on the board, after six years as a general member and two as a committee chair, I moved into the chair's role. And still I was blindsided by things that had been bubbling under the surface. There's no way I would have been able to deal with those in a way that was congruent with the mission of the school, that enrolled the skills present on the board, and that was pragmatic about skills we lacked, without my previous years' experiences.

At the very least you should ask to read the board's formation documents, any bylaws, a snapshot of the finances for the last three years, and minutes from the last one or two years of board meetings. I would also ask what their board governance model is & the decision-making process they use. The meeting minutes will give you a good sense of the health of the regular meetings, what the main issues are, and how effective the board is. If they keep talking about capital improvements or fundraisers or lawsuits or personnel issues and nothing seems to have changed, that's good to know. Not reasons to turn down service, but it sets your expectations a bit or can warn you about ineffective board dynamics. I'd also ask to talk to the current, out-going, and former chair so you can get their sense of the board overall.

If the school is part of a regional accrediting group, that group can also have resources for board members and board education it would be helpful to read.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:20 AM on April 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, these are incredible responses so far. In response to cocoagirl, it's just a preschool for twos to fours and since it's fairly rare for incoming parents to serve, two years of service is pretty common unless there are siblings. I would likely serve for two years.

The school has about 85 students which seemed large to me compared to other schools in the area, but I guess it is quite small thinking more broadly of other private schools. I'm not sure if alumni are permitted to serve on the board, but based on what I've seen of the board members it appears that it typically doesn't happen.

The school handled COVID extremely well, but it was an abnormal year, with lower enrollment than normal and less board engagement. I think the disruption there is a major reason that the board will have more newcomers this year. My sense from reviewing the financials is that the school is in the black with substantial (though not very large) reserves.

Fortunately, the co-chair I will work with this coming school year served last year as vice chair and seems quite skilled, I think time considerations was the main reason she wasn't able to be sole chair. I initially volunteered to be vice chair, was then asked to be chair with her as vice, and then we agreed to co-chair. So I will lean very much on her at first in terms of learning the institutional knowledge, relationships, etc. I think I'm mainly coming in to share responsibilities and also because of my legal/financial background.
posted by redondo77 at 7:56 AM on April 25, 2021

One thing to know about board service in a school - other parents will expect you to be super closely involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. IME that's not what board service is about.

I've served on the board at my kids' school for 11 years. Some parents treat me differently, and I've had some faculty and staff treat me differently. I make it clear when I'm in school for kid-related stuff that I am just wearing my parent hat that day, and I need to focus on my kid. I don't ever traffic in gossip about the staff. I don't tell my wife about confidential board business, so she doesn't have the burden of knowing things she cannot say to other parents.

This is all to say, you'll need to take a fresh look at the boundaries in your life, and how to manage those boundaries with proper respect to all of your roles. Our head of school said to me one time, when push comes to shove, be a parent first. That's the most important job. It helped to hear that.
posted by sockshaveholes at 9:21 AM on April 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Everything cocoagirl said plus try to attend board meetings for the rest of this school year. You’ll want to find out how meetings get run and what the current and long-term issues are. Talking to the secretary and reading old minutes will also help. Find out if they use Robert’s Rules and read up on them if so. Talk a LOT to your co-chair - have her get you up to speed as much as possible.
posted by bananacabana at 9:50 AM on April 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

I was on the board (but not a trustee) of my local co-op preschool for a few years. New board members weren't expected to know the details of the job before they started, but were given a binder with useful information from whoever had held the position before. Is there anything like that for you?

(An earlier member of the preschool board went on to be a US Senator, so, hold on to your hat, you have no idea where this will take you.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:32 PM on April 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

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