Election time looms for school boards

April 2016


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With this year’s triennial board of trustee elections looming, there is much that schools need to be thinking about in terms of the election process, managing the transition to a new board and supporting new board members. JUDE BARBACK reports. 

Election timeThe elections of new boards of trustees taking place in May-June are an important fixture on the education calendar this year. At the time of the last elections in 2013 there were 18,435 people serving on the boards of trustees of New Zealand’s 2,422 state and state-integrated schools. Three years on, schools must embark on the process of electing new boards of trustees.


Election process

The overall trustee election process is managed by the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA) in collaboration with the Ministry of Education. NZSTA president Lorraine Kerr says she’s happy with the current election process.

“We’re very comfortable with the way board of trustee elections are held. The process is being refined and improved with each iteration as the understanding of what makes for an effective board of trustees evolves,” she says.

Kerr gives the example of boards being more proactive and strategic about finding the right balance of people to reflect their community and the right balance of skills and experience to be able to govern effectively.

She thinks the three-year period for trustees to serve on the board is appropriate. Consultation for the update of the Education Act 1989 revealed strong support for a three-year strategic planning cycle to align with the election cycle for boards of trustees.

However, although the major changes in board membership occur in triennial election years, there is still some fluctuation in intervening years due to casual vacancies, by-elections, and mid-term elections.

The mid-term elections system, also known as “staggered elections”, was introduced in 2002. In addition to the main triennial trustee elections, a board may also decide to adopt a mid-term election cycle where half the number of its parent representatives is elected at a mid-term election held 18 months after the triennial election and the remainder are elected at the triennial election.

A by-election can occur at any stage in the election cycle if an elected trustee leaves the board and thereby creates a casual vacancy.

Recruiting trustees

The NZSTA has provided boards with plenty of advice on recruiting people for the board.

From school newsletters to school answerphone messages to school activities and events – there are many opportunities to inform parents about the upcoming trustee elections.

However, according to the NZSTA’s election planner, the most effective way of encouraging people to stand or nominate someone to stand is to make sure they hear from existing trustees about the difference they can make for their school.

Existing trustees are encouraged to shoulder-tap prospective trustees to share recent and future initiatives at the school, what improvements the trustees have made and outline how important it is for children’s education to have an effective board. This may mean looking beyond the parents to the wider community; tapping into service and business organisations, local churches, and Māori, Pasifika and other ethnic community groups might provide a good way of getting the message out there.

In approaching the elections, the NZSTA also asks boards to discuss the skills, competencies and experiences that they believe would be useful to have represented around the board table.

Election project manager Janet Kelly says it is important that the board reflects its community.

“A good balance of gender, ethnicity and skills around the board table will influence and support educational opportunities for each and every student in our schools.”

In its submission regarding the update to the Education Act 1989, BusinessNZ placed emphasis on finding the right balance of skills for school boards: “There needs to be a stronger focus on getting the people with the right skills, experience, expertise and knowledge necessary to fulfil the board’s responsibilities consistent with their mission, role, purpose, key outcomes, goals and priorities, and measures of performance.”


Managing transition

For schools that are dealing with a major issue or conflict, a change of board can be a good or a bad thing. Either way, the NZSTA says boards need to plan for the transition and has produced **itals** A Board’s Guide to Effective Succession Planning**, in which it outlines what effective succession planning looks like, drawing on what it calls “the 3 Rs”: readiness, recruitment and retention.

In terms of readiness, a board needs to determine the relevant skills and experience of effective trustees and ensure its documentation is in place and up to date.

For recruitment, potential trustees are identified, given appropriate information and parents on the voting roll are informed of the voting process and the skills and attributes of the candidates.

For retention of board members, a thorough induction process and ongoing professional development opportunities should be extended to the board.


Professional development

For many years there was little support for trustees, but that changed significantly with the 2013 budget when the government appropriated $14.5 over four years to support the governance role. This funding, combined with existing professional development funding, has allowed the NZSTA to move to the delivery of fully integrated, free support and development services that can assist boards in enhancing all aspects of their governance role.

The new services include HR advisory services, a recruitment management system for schools and a governance internal evaluation tool to help boards identify areas of strength and where they can improve their governance practice.

There is also a full range of professional development options such as one-on-one opportunities and mentoring for qualifying boards, board chair residential courses, nationally advertised workshops and a range of online learning modules, a financial risk assessment tool for schools and a wide range of resources available through the NZSTA website, including GovTalks – a library of three-minute videos about governance-related topics.

“Our aim is that all schools are effectively governed by a board of trustees whose primary focus is every student achieving their highest possible potential,” says Kerr. “Although we have some way to go to achieve that outcome, for the first time we do now have the financial support to enable us and the boards we serve to make that significant difference over time.”

A second tier of peer support and resources is available to NZSTA member boards. Membership of the NZSTA is voluntary; around 90 per cent of all eligible boards of trustees choose to be members. This second tier includes a regular membership magazine, quarterly regional newsletters, access to regional membership activities and the NZSTA National Conference, which provides two and a half days of concentrated professional development workshops and networking opportunities for member boards. Kerr expects around 900 trustees to attend this year’s conference in Wellington. Many boards reserve conference places for their new trustees in an election year.


A Ministry of Education document concerning the update of the Education Act 1989 has sparked fears of the possibility that principals might not sit on boards of trustees in the future. A letter was sent from the Ministry to participants of the consultation process requesting further feedback on board capability and composition, among other things.

The document asked for ideas for improving the current statutory composition of boards. “For example, should principals and staff representatives be voting members of boards?” it read.

New Zealand Principals’ Federation president Iain Taylor says he has received many outraged emails from principals about the prospect. He says the arguments for principals needing to remain on boards are simple and clear.

“The relationship between the BoT and principal is critical to the successful running of a school.

It is the principal who follows the vision and direction of the school, which is set by the BoT with the principal’s input. It is the principal who constructs and carries out policies advanced by the BoT. It is the input from the principal that guides the BoT in their governance role. It is the principal who provides all the pedagogical leadership for the BoT, which is critical, especially when making property decisions. It is the principal who provides all the evidential documents to keep the BoT compliant with all of their legislative requirements.”

Lorraine Kerr, president of the New Zealand School Trustees Association, agrees that principals hold an important place on boards and says they are an essential part of discussions about their schools.


The evolving role of boards

In 2013 Stuart Middleton wrote an article for Education Review questioning the board of trustees model as a reliable method to govern a school.

He describes the model as “democracy in action at the smallest level”, particularly for small, isolated communities that have a variable and often limited pool of experience available for election to positions on the board. Furthermore, the election is really a selection made by the community, which in itself, Middleton points out, will exhibit a widely variable level of competence to make such selections.

“Is a community in a leafy, rich suburb able to provide the balance of backgrounds that will ensure that the business of schooling will prepare youngsters for living in a diverse and different world?” questions Middleton.

“Can the community of a low decile school provide the range of skills needed to ensure that the provision of quality education and the levels of achievement for which they have responsibility are adequate? Low decile schools have complexities that middle and high decile schools do not have, and yet it is these very same school communities that have to provide a board that is, until it gets into trouble, largely left to do its best.”

Middleton suggests there is confusion around the difference between governance and management.

“Where school boards run into trouble is that having been elected, they want to start micro-managing the school; they want to run the school. Their expertise to do this is based on a nostalgic recollection of their own schooling, their quite proper concern for their children, and often, a desire to prove that “their school” is better than the neighbouring schools.”

NZSTA president Lorraine Kerr says a greater understanding of the difference between governance and management has emerged over time as the scope of boards of trustees has evolved over the years.

“The whole idea of ‘governing’ being different from ‘managing’ or ‘administration’ has developed in the period since boards of trustees came into being,” she says.

“In 1989 the board’s role and the principal’s were regarded as part of ‘school administration’. The idea of management as a separate type of activity from administration, and leadership as separate from management, and governing as separate from leading, has all evolved in the time since boards of trustees were created, and so the way the board’s role is understood has evolved – and is still evolving – as part of that.

“In the 1990s boards of trustees were preoccupied with issues like property and funding. Students and anything to do with learning or teaching were seen as teachers’ business, not board business.

“The big shift has been the recognition since 2001 that student achievement is the board of trustees’ core business, and that everything a board of trustees does should be guided by the question ‘How will this help our students achieve the most that they are capable of?’”

The roles and responsibilities of boards is a key discussion point of the update to the Education Act 1989. A discussion document proposes that it should be clear what boards are expected to do, and provides possible roles and responsibilities for boards.

The roles and responsibilities of boards are currently scattered through various sections of the Act, the National Education Guidelines and the National Administration Guidelines, and in some cases are not clearly stated. Participants in the consultation process noted that this can lead to boards being unsure about what they can, and should, do. The revised Act is likely to provide some clarity in this area.

In its recommendation, the NZSTA recommended the Act define the role of boards as being to govern the school community in such a way as to give effect to the national vision and goals for education.

 “The outcome we are working towards is that all schools are effectively governed by a board of trustees whose primary focus is every student achieving their highest possible educational potential,” says Kerr.

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