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School Trustees - Thrown in the deep end? by Stewart Russell

07 Jul 2016

Many congratulations to all successful candidates who were elected onto their school boards.  Now the real work begins.  There will be many trustees voted on for the first time, perhaps had their arm twisted to stand for election, and are now wondering what they are supposed to be doing. 

Without trying to scare you too much, you are now responsible for ensuring that every student in your school has the opportunity to realise their full potential.    That in itself is an enormous task.  However it doesn’t stop there.  You are also responsible for the curriculum taught in the School and the employment of the School Principal, teachers and support staff.  You are responsible for all property and financial matters, and for ensuring that the school premises are a safe environment for students, staff and visitors.

But don’t panic.  You are not expected to be an expert in teaching, education, employment law, finances or health and safety.  Most of the work which you are responsible for will be delegated to the Principal, who in turn may delegate it to other team members or advisers.  Your role is governance of the school.  You should not be getting involved with the day to day management of the school. 

You need to be asking questions to ensure that the tasks you have delegated are being performed properly.  Remember you can delegate the task but you cannot delegate your responsibility. 

Even at the smallest of schools, you will have control of several hundred thousand dollars of taxpayers’ money.   You are responsible for ensuring that this money is spent in the best way to help every student realise their potential.  A common target area for a number of primary schools at present is boys’ writing.  The Board need to decide, with guidance from the principal, how much money to commit to this area and how they should spend this money.  There is no bottomless pit of money.  You can only spend the dollar once.  So for every dollar you spend on boys’ writing, there is one dollar less to spend on mathematics.  The Board has the unenviable task of priortising spending and setting a budget. 

After all of this you may now be regretting putting your hand up.  There is no need to be concerned.  The NZ School Trustee Association (NZSTA) offer many free training courses and seminars for Trustees.  In my first term of office I attended a number of these.  The most valuable outcome from these courses was the connection with other Trustees around the Far North.  Sharing ideas and experiences which we could all take into our respective schools and kura. 

This will sound a bit like a broken record, but providing you focus your decision making on ensuring that every student has the opportunity to realise their full potential, you will not go far wrong. 

Finally and most importantly, do not be scared of asking the difficult questions.  You are responsible for the governance of the School and therefore you need to understand what is happening.  Do not allow yourself to be fobbed off by the principal or another trustee.  If you do not understand the answer, for whatever reason, ask them to explain further. 

On behalf of your tamariki, I thank you for standing up and putting yourself forward.  Good luck with the next three years and remember if you need help, call out to one of your fellow school trustees or the NZSTA. 

We will be running a free seminar for school trustees to help them understand financial reports during the next school term. 

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