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Building an Effective Charter School Board

Charter School Capital

October 25, 2019


Charter School Board

Building an Effective Charter School Board

For this CHARTER EDtalk, Michelle Lohner, Sr. Account Manager at Charter School Capital, was joined by BoardOnTrack’s Director of Leadership & Governance Training, Mike Mizzoni to discuss tips on how to build an effective charter school board. Mike shares his expertise on why is it important to put together the “right” board, what qualities you should look for when building an effective board, the ideal size of a board, and how long should people typically serve on your charter school board. Please watch the video below and read the transcript for the complete story.


Michelle Lohner: Thank you so much everyone for joining us today. I’m Michelle Lohner, senior account manager at Charter School Capital. Today we have Mike Mizzoni, director of leadership and governance training for Board on Track.

Mike Mizzoni: Hey, there.

Lohner: Thank you so much, Mike, for being here.

Mizzoni: Thank you for having me. Excited to be here.

Lohner: Yes, yes. We’re all excited to hear some of those best tips and best practices that you have to share. So get it started, why is it so important to put together the right board?

Mizzoni: Great question. The governing boards of charter schools have a really, really important job to do. We often talk about how the governing board in the school leadership team, so your CEO or your executive director, are really two sides of the same coin governing and leading this organization. Ultimately they’ve got a really important job to do. This is really the board of directors of a multimillion dollar public enterprise.

And so given that, and whenever we use that phrase, we usually see heads nod because it really gives it the kind of gravitas that it deserves. We remind people that serving on a public charter school board is a part-time job, and it’s really important. And so we encourage people to take it as a really serious position. So making sure you have the right people on the board in order to accomplish all of the things that a good charter school board needs to accomplish is key.

This is really what we call shared governance. And the way that shared governance works best is when there’s a school leader and a paid set of expert staff members who are there to run the school day-to-day. And then separately we have a group of laypersons who are not expected to be educators day-to-day who are leading and providing direction and oversight for the organization. So what we want to see with that group of lay people is a diverse background from everything related to their professional and demographic background and expertise.

Lohner: So that’s interesting. You were saying having a wide background. What qualities, though, are you looking for when you’re trying to build that effective board setting yourself up for growth?

Mizzoni: Yeah, so there’s definitely no right answer. And what is important is one of the things that we are promoting is this notion of being really strategic when you’re recruiting your board members. Going back to the notion that this is a multimillion dollar public enterprise. What we want, what we encourage people is that their form should follow their function. So the board that they’re putting together should be specifically formed in such a way that it’s designed to accomplish the thing that the board has set out to do.

So just for example, let’s say that if one of the things you were looking to do this year was to expand into a new location, and you wanted to buy or build a new school. At that point, it might be really important to have somebody who has school financing experience, real estate transactions, school architecture or facilities experience, specifically to help the board accomplish that task of building or buying a new building.

Similarly, if you were going to start a brand new fundraising, capital fundraising campaign, you want to make sure you’re recruiting people who have fundraising experience that they can bring to the board.

Lohner: Makes sense.

Mizzoni: What we encourage people is not to have a board that’s made up of entirely educators or former teachers. One of the common things we see as people are assembling their board for the first time is that they want to go and hire and recruit everybody who’s either been a teacher or worked for a school. And that’s great, and we want to make sure that there’s real depth in the educational experiences and knowledge, but we also want to make sure that you’ve got someone with financial experience, someone who understands how school budgets operate, someone with legal experience. Again, not to be the lawyer for the board, but to have somebody who can think with a different mindset about policies and when it’s important to bring in outside legal counsel.

We always look to have someone with HR experience, so somebody who understands employee relations and how to build a human capital pipeline of teachers and staff and holding your [inaudible 00:04:00] accountable and doing an employee review. Having HR experience and an understanding of that role is critical.

Another thing that people don’t think of often when they’re assembling their board is having previous governance experience. So having somebody who has either served on a school board before or a nonprofit board or charitable board, again, brings that perspective of how group processes work and how serving on a board is like serving on any other team where you want to make sure that you’re working together for the common goals.

Lohner: So that’s really interesting. You’ve talked a lot about the different qualities that go into making up a good board. What would you say is the ideal size of a board?

Mizzoni: Yeah, again, actually again, I will say is that there’s not a specific right answer. So again, I think every board, it’s important for them to say, do we have the size board that meets the needs of our organization today?

One of the things we talk a lot about is how boards government for growth. And specifically when it comes to charter schools, we know that there’s a need for more seats to be opened up in charter school programs. So whether it’s by serving more grade levels or by expanding into different locations, most charter schools that we work with are on some growth trajectory, again, either adding students to their current schools or expanding to new schools.

And so as the organization does that and evolves, what we find is that the work of the board just by necessity becomes more complex as well. So as the organization is older, it tends to be that you need to expand the size of your board to keep up with all of that work that needs to get done.

So as a general rule, it’s very common for boards, especially when they’re in their planning years, maybe they haven’t applied for their charter yet or maybe they just have recently applied for their charter, it’d be very common for them to have a board of anywhere from five to seven or nine board members.

My recommendation is that you do not go out and start a governing board with fewer than seven people because that’s usually about the minimum size that we find where you have enough diversity of opinion and background, but you’re also able to have a manageable sized group that you’re working with, and things like quorum are usually not a problem.

As the organization evolves and things like the need to have really robust committee work in between your full board meetings, as that tends to happen, you need to recruit more people to serve on all of these committees and to help pull the weight of really a sustainable, well-run charter school board.

So what I recommend is that once you’ve got your feet under you, and you become a well oiled machine, you should strive to have anywhere from 11 to 15 board members as part of your team. Again, it’s important that boards reflect and say, “What do we need right now?” Because it’s not always the right solution just to add board members. And what we find is that if boards don’t have the right processes and structure in place, then once you get to 13, 15 board members, you quickly hit the point of diminishing returns, and having more board members on your team actually becomes more problematic than beneficial.

Lohner: I could see that. Almost having too many, too many cooks in the kitchen, right?

Mizzoni: Exactly. And we see that a lot.

Lohner: Yes. So in terms of you talked about sort of that best practice, five to seven as you’re just getting started, and it grows as the school grows. What would you say most board members, how long do they actually serve on a school board?

Mizzoni: Right. And so what we find is general rule is that we recommend total terms on the board of about six years, and there are a couple of ways we do that. The way that the length of somebody’s term on a board is determined is typically by the term limits in bylaws. So we encourage every charter school board to have term limits in their bylaws, their governing documents. Because to the point that we’ve been making that given the fact that these charter school organizations are run by a group of interested people with all of these different backgrounds, it’s important that you’re bringing in new life, new blood, new experiences to the board and that the board doesn’t get stale, or very frequently we have what we call founder fatigue. If the board, if you have the same founding group of board members for 10 years, the board tends to get stale, and we want to bring in that new life.

So what we encourage people is to set term limits in their bylaws. What we typically recommend are either two year terms that are renewable up to three time, so you could serve for a total of six years, or the inverse of that would be to have three year terms that are renewable twice. So again, we don’t recommend serving for longer than a six year period on a board. It’s great after six years to get some separation from the board, maybe take a couple of years off and always have the opportunity to come back. But we recommended having some sort of structured term of six years at a most that way board members have an out, and they can elect to not renew their term.

And then also your colleagues on the board have the option to say, “We might need to now go in a different direction. And if the board members we need now serve a different purpose, we want to have the ability to thank you for your service and then attract a new board member to the team.”

Lohner: So Mike, you had mentioned that, you know, it’s good to set terms for your board members, you know, somewhere around six years. But with that, how do you ensure that you have longevity for your board when there’s this turnover, you know, every six years or so?

Mizzoni: Yeah, it really all comes down to succession planning for your board members and being really strategic when it comes to your recruitment efforts as a board. So what we would encourage people to do is on an annual basis, is to be very methodical about having a conversation about their recruitment needs and you want them to have a conversation about what it is that the board needs to do in the next two, three, four, five years in order to be successful. And then to recruit people specifically who meet those needs, as we talked about the diverse skill sets and backgrounds and experiences that we want on the board. And this is the challenge that just about every charter school board that we work with faces is keeping a continuous pipeline of people who are aligned with the mission and then serve one of those particular purposes.

And so there are a lot of tips and strategies out there that boards can use to improve their recruitment efforts that make it so that it’s not just going out and finding people and begging people to serve on your board but such that they’re actually applying and knocking down your door because they want to serve and continue and further the mission. So people are interested in finding more information on how to recruit really strategically and effectively. I know that we at BoardOnTrack and at Charter School Capital both have resources on just how to do that. The one, the two tips actually that I’d leave you with are …

Lohner: Please.

Mizzoni: One is to consider having a written job description explaining what it means to serve on your board. That way when people are interested in potentially serving, there’s a document that you can point them to for what the expectations of their role will be.

Lohner: Definitely.

Mizzoni: And then the other thing I would consider boards to do is to add, consider adding people to their board who are not full voting board members but are volunteer committee members. And so what we find is that bringing somebody into the work of the board by asking them to serve on a committee while not being a full voting board member is a great way to get them ramped up and interested in the work [crosstalk 00:02:09] so that when you’re ready for a seat to open, you’ve got some people that you can look to who are, you know, familiar with the work and ready to get up to speed.

Lohner: That makes perfect sense. You know, they can really just kind of get their feet wet, right, and get to experience what it’s like to be on a board and then you know, hopefully you know, have be ready to just step on board one day and be board president.

Mizzoni: That’s exactly right. That’s what we like to see.

Lohner: Those are some great best practices and like you said, you know, be sure to check out the website. But thank you so much, Mike, for being with us today.

Mizzoni: Thank you.

Lohner: Thank you everyone for tuning in to our Ed Talk and hope that you have a great afternoon.

The Ultimate Guide to Charter School Board Governance 


For your school to reach its goals, meet its mission, and be set up for success, you need to build a well-structured, well-staffed, and well-trained Board of Directors. In this important webinar, our partners and industry experts on Board Governance, BoardOnTrack, will be sharing their expertise on the ins and outs of recruiting, building, and managing your governance team as you grow. 

Watch and learn: 

  • Board basics: Who should be on your governance team and what should they do? 
  • How to build a strong board: Strategically recruiting for diversity and skills 
  • Tips to govern for growth: How to face challenges and changes at any stage 

Download it now and get the tools to be more strategic about your school’s board governance practices! 

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