How school boards can ensure good governance in times of change

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Special Counsel

With school board elections being held, members of school boards are turning their minds to how they can ensure good governance at their school with potentially new members. Establishing a Code of Conduct and succession planning will help to ensure consistent and effective governance.

Why it matters: School boards have a hugely important role in the lives of their students and the community, therefore good governance of our schools should not be left to chance. This year’s school elections have generated nation-wide discussion about the character of people standing for school boards. This has highlighted a wider issue around who should be allowed to get involved in the governance of their local school.

The reality of the situation: Added to the concern about the candidate’s character is that for some schools there are not enough candidates standing for the school to hold board elections, so all running candidates are automatically appointed. Voter turnout is also traditionally low.

Who cannot be on a school board?

The Education and Training Act 2020 (Act) sets out who cannot become a member of a school board.

Someone who has been convicted of an offence punishable by imprisonment for a term of two years or more, or who has been sentenced to imprisonment for any other offence, cannot be appointed, unless that person has obtained a pardon, served the sentence, or otherwise suffered the penalty imposed.

This aspect of the eligibility criteria has been criticised as having some “grey areas” and there have been calls to reduce any ambiguity and even legislate a type of “good character” requirement. We will keep you updated with developments in this area, however in the meantime there are actions boards can take to ensure good governance.

What can schools do to ensure good governance?

Establish a Code of Conduct: Currently there is no ability to remove elected board members, therefore the Code of Conduct will provide a welcome tool to deal with board conduct that is unacceptable. While it is voluntary for school boards to have a Code of Conduct, we would encourage schools to put one in place. Under the Act, the Minister can issue a code of conduct covering the minimum standards of conduct that members are required to meet and a board member could be censured or removed for a breach. We understand that such a code is currently being created and we will communicate the details once released. But setting up a code of conduct is a good intermediary step while we wait for government guidance.
Look to the future with succession planning: Succession planning is an important function of good governance. It’s important that schools educate the school community on board elections and encourage people to consider standing. Boards can play an active role in succession planning by identifying and approaching potential suitably-skilled candidates and encouraging them to stand.
Communicate with your community during election time: Mobilising the community and getting them registered, and voting is important. Schools should actively encourage people to vote and provide information about candidates as well as the role of a school board member to the school community. Provide more detailed community-centric information about the role of school boards and how decision-making directly contributes to school life.

Take control of your school’s best interests

It’s critical for school boards to have quality candidates who are focused on acting in the best interests of the school, and who are not focused on single issues or personal agendas. School boards should be active in succession planning and implementing a Code of Conduct to ensure an agreed level of conduct which will help to foster good, consistent governance.

This article was prepared by Special Counsel Madeleine Hawkesby. For more information, please contact a member of the Education Team. 

Disclaimer: the content of this article is general in nature and not intended as a substitute for specific professional advice on any matter and should not be relied upon for that purpose.

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