A challenge for the board

Soon after being elected for the first time, a board member begins his tenure by criticising the procedures and systems of the board and school. He makes direct contact with the principal, demands information from the office staff, and makes life difficult for other members of the board. The principal is at a loss to know what to do.

Fred joins the board

I was a very experienced principal. I had been at a large decile 10 school for about two years and had worked really hard on developing a shared understanding with the school community about our purpose and strategic direction. We were poised to start some exciting innovations. The ground work was done and a recent ERO review had confirmed that the school was functioning well. The board of trustees was functioning well too and we had started to review and streamline our systems. I was feeling very positive. At mid-term two new trustee members were elected to the board. For the next three meetings the new members spent time observing and watching how the board functioned. They were both encouraged to attend NZSTA training. One did.

A week before the fourth meeting, the Annual Meeting, the board papers were sent to the trustees, as was usual practice. Fred, one of the new trustees and a chartered accountant, sent a six-page email to me with criticisms of the information he’d received. The email outlined his belief that I had failed to comply with the Education Act in terms of the Annual Meeting. He asked for more detail – mostly related to financial management. He requested copies of all contracts ever signed by the school, all past audited accounts, and all minutes of previous meetings. As an experienced principal, I felt a mixture of anger and concern at this onslaught.

I rang the board chairperson, who discussed the email with Fred. However, the chairperson was unable to make any progress on what we both thought were unreasonable demands. I called the NZSTA Helpdesk, and the NZSTA adviser was extremely supportive. She wrote a response, pointing out to Fred that he was well out of order with his requests, and factually incorrect in his understanding of the Education Act and its requirements.

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Fred’s behaviour is unmanageable

Fred disregarded the response from NZSTA and insisted on his requests being answered. The chairperson directed me to ignore some but answer other requests. I wasn’t happy because I could see there was potential for further problems if the chairperson did not challenge Fred’s behaviour. The difficulty for me as the principal in this situation was that I was a member of the board but also an employee. How do you challenge the behaviour of your employer, especially when the chairperson is not prepared to do so?

At the Annual Meeting, Fred insisted on outlining his concerns in spite of the rest of the board not agreeing with him and in spite of the advice from NZSTA that he was wrong. Again, I felt angry that his unreasonable behaviour was left unchallenged by the board. Apart from my own challenges to his behaviour, I felt there was little else I could do. Fred continued with his demands for extraordinary amounts of information before each board meeting. He began to personally attack other board members, usually the trustee in charge of the financial portfolio, reducing her to tears at meetings.

The board chairperson and I took to preparing for each meeting by talking about how we would manage Fred’s behaviour. We tried to use Fred’s knowledge by including him in the finance sub-committee meetings. Fred either did not attend or did not carry out agreed actions. During this time, the chairperson resigned and a new chairperson was elected. Fred began to make life difficult for her. Even with constant contact with the NZSTA Helpdesk and my support in preparing her for each board meeting (including scripting her role), the new chairperson was unable to manage Fred.

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The impact of Fred’s time on the board

I began to spend most of my time preparing reports and information for Fred and managing the deteriorating relationships between the board members, the board and the management team, and the board and staff. I felt frustrated and angry that one person could upset a very good school to such a degree. In spite of being directed not to, Fred began to make contact with the school administration staff, and I had to manage the fall-out from his rude interactions. I had all his calls redirected to me. I was not happy about this. Fred was a bully and while I was used to managing bullies, I had never had one as my employer and I felt unsure about how to manage the relationship. Before long, we were unable to move forward with making any decisions as a board. The school continued to function adequately – in fact, we were doing some exceptional work in literacy. However, no action for achieving our strategic plan was possible as our board meetings, despite lasting for hours, never got past Fred’s attacks on the financial reports.

I was ready to leave. I began to look at the Education Gazette for other positions. I was so frustrated at not being able to build on all that we had achieved and capitalise on our potential to really fly. During all this time, I kept thinking that if we were all reasonable then we could find a solution, a way through. This situation continued for a year, even after several sessions facilitated by NZSTA advisers, who went over roles, responsibilities, codes of conduct, and the difference between governance and management. Everyone, especially me and certainly the poor finance trustee, dreaded board meetings and heaved a huge sigh of relief on the occasions when Fred sent his apologies. In spite of being a principal for more than 20 years, I felt enormous levels of anxiety and physically sick as the time for each meeting approached, and whenever I received an email from Fred.

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Fred challenges the auditor

The next Annual Meeting came around and many of the same issues raised at the previous Annual Meeting reappeared. In addition, Fred asked to attend the finance sub-committee meeting with the auditor. At this meeting, the audited accounts and management letter were to be signed off. No issues had been detected and the management letter from the auditor was positive.

At the start of the finance sub-committee meeting, Fred asked all the staff (principal, deputy principal, and executive officer), to leave so that he could have a full and frank discussion with the auditor. I heard shortly after that Fred had asked the auditor if there were any issues or concerns around financial mismanagement or fraud that had been left out of the management letter. I was furious at this slight on my integrity and the integrity of my staff, and told the board so. I made it clear that the only reason I was staying in the school was to ensure the situation was sorted, as I could not in all conscience leave things as they were for a new principal to take over.

The board chairperson instructed Fred that any communication from him had to go to her, and that he was not allowed to make contact with any staff member. The board censured Fred for acting outside his authority at the finance sub-committee meeting. Following that incident, the executive officer announced her intention to resign at the end of the year. She said she felt humiliated and insulted by the way she had been treated by Fred. In addition, the trustee leading the finance sub-committee resigned, saying she could not put up with being attacked at every board meeting, that we had offered Fred opportunities to use his skills to improve our systems, and that he had not done so. I was really saddened. I told the rest of the board that the way it was functioning was impacting on my ability to manage and was putting the school at risk. I warned them that they ran the risk of personal grievances if this situation continued.

Following that meeting, two of the male members of the board met with Fred to see if they could resolve the situation. We recognised there were gender issues with the female chairperson, who felt unsafe and bullied by Fred. That meeting had no positive outcome and so I again suggested we call NZSTA. With NZSTA’s help, we had a facilitated meeting at which each board member outlined their anger at Fred’s behaviour and their frustration at the fact that his behaviour risked ruining a very successful school. By this time, the board had become fractured and relationships were strained. However, Fred was still unrepentant.

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Reflective questions 1

  • What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
  • What would you do at this point if you were in this principal’s position?
  • What are the principal’s options for dealing with this dilemma?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1. The use of an external facilitator is always the most beneficial option in these circumstances. The early inclusion of NZSTA in the process was important and helped to keep all parties safe.
  2. This principal could use another principal as a critical friend with whom to discuss issues and who would attend meetings where asked. Just to have someone else there who knows about running a school and working with a board can be emotionally supportive, even if they say nothing!
  3. I would make sure I was never alone with Fred and that conversations were witnessed and documented.

Principal two

  1. The responsibilities and protocols of the board must be in writing and clearly understood by all members. These should be available to all prospective board members and adhered to once members are elected.
  2. It is important that new members to the board are allocated roles, as this gives them direction and some ownership.
  3. The chairperson has to accept responsibility for dealing with the situation when a board member acts outside the ‘governance' role.
  4. The principal should know that no member of the board can call a meeting or demand an action without the prior approval of the whole board.
  5. In this case the principal responded to requests from Fred regarding the Annual Meeting, setting a precedent for further requests. These were clearly outside the board member's brief.
  6. The Ministry of Education’s School Support Team would have been most beneficial to this board. As an independent group with the power to bring in a commissioner, it would have set clear parameters for the board in the role of ‘governance’.

Leadership adviser

  1. This principal should continue to work with NZSTA.
  2. I would make available some workplace counselling for the principal. Often time is needed to talk through incidents such as this, in order to realise the problem is not yours alone. Focusing on the issues and not the personalities involved can be really helpful.
  3. In this kind of situation, it is also important to consider the legislation that addresses stress management. Has this board done everything possible to manage the stress of those affected by the behaviour of the rogue board member?

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Actual courses of action taken by this principal

The facilitated meeting was very successful at bringing the rest of the board together. I worked with the chairperson and NZSTA adviser to prepare for the next board meeting. The chairperson was to tell Fred that the police would be called if he persisted in his behaviour. The board would set up a sub-committee including all members of the board except Fred, at which all business would be conducted. In fact, Fred stayed away from the next three board meetings. We were therefore able to inform him that absence from three meetings, without leave, meant he was no longer a member of the board. He sought advice on that decision but was told we were acting lawfully. Since then, the board has had another session with an NZSTA facilitator to revive the strategic plan and is now united in its desire to move forward. The executive officer has returned part time and the trustee who resigned has returned.

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Reflective questions 2

  • What do you think about the ways the principal dealt with this dilemma?
  • Can you take any learning for yourself from this principal’s story, and the comments offered by others?
  • Can you identify the crucial decision-making points in this dilemma, where one course of action rather than another was taken? Would you have made the same decisions at these points? Why? Why not?

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Writer’s reflection

If I had the time again, I think I would have moved sooner to get the board to challenge Fred’s behaviour. I would have sought more intervention from outside agencies such as NZSTA, NZEI, and the Ministry when it became clear that the board was unable to deal with Fred. However, this is always a very difficult thing for a principal to do, given their employee/employer relationship with the board.

I had sought advice and support early from NZSTA and it had been very helpful. The option of getting a commissioner in would have been a last resort. The negative impact of that action on the school’s reputation in a decile 10 community could have affected teachers’ employment. However, if at any stage I had thought the teaching and learning had been affected, I would have taken some of those actions, but we were able to contain the impact and keep it away from staff and students. There was a huge personal cost for that and I think my determination, resilience, and ability to keep it in some perspective, though hard at times, was what enabled me to get through it.

The other important issue was that there is no avenue for a board to sack a non-performing or badly behaving trustee. I think this is a weakness of the board model, but one we have to work with. It outlined to me how vulnerable we are (principals, especially) in terms of the make-up of our boards, the goodwill of board members to work together positively, and the skill levels of the chairperson.

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Further comments

Dr David Stewart offers these thoughts on this dilemma:

This is a classic dilemma, in that whatever course of action is chosen, there are likely to be negative consequences. In addition, there is the associated complexity brought about by the somewhat overlapping notions of how governance and management function in schools. Decision theory would suggest that these kinds of problems might be best approached through a formal process. For example, the principal would move a formal motion at the board meeting: “That NZSTA advice be accepted and no further action be taken in this matter”, and invite all board members to vote. Such a formal approach, provided it did have support, may have provided sufficient encouragement and confidence for the board chair to keep a more even keel.

The tyranny of a dissenting individual is also well canvassed in the literature pertaining to small group practice and process. Here, a distinction is often made between generally ‘goodwill’ disagreement, often labelled ‘the loyal opposition’ and more entrenched, disruptive behaviour as described in this case. Generally, the evidence focuses firstly on clarifying the issues and carefully checking implications and assumptions before enacting some kind of agreement to proceed.

Where such agreement can’t be reached, there is usually a necessity for the group to disband. Once again, there is a cost for taking these kinds of actions. Finally, hindsight is a wonderful aid and these complex, high-stakes interactions occur for principals inside an already bursting cacophony of events. There is seldom the time to engage with contemplatory reference material. That is why the growing support of local reflective groups of principals engaged in talking with each other and supported from a centre devoted to their interests is so important.

David Stewart suggested these questions as a way of thinking through this dilemma:

  1. What were the warning signals that this situation could spiral out of control?
  2. Investigating underlying assumptions and power considerations when high-stakes problems occur is important. Do you agree or disagree?
  3. How could a reflective group approach help in this circumstance?
  4. Do we need to know about how groups work to resolve situations like this?
  5. When should a principal take time to investigate a wide range of alternatives and implications?

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