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FastStats: Governance Beliefs and Practices in SAIS Schools

Tuesday, September 3, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lori Spear
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By Jeff Mitchell, Head of School, Currey Ingram Academy, Brentwood, TN


In this FastStats, governance beliefs and practices in SAIS schools are investigated. The data was obtained from SAIS Governance Surveys conducted between 2016-2019 in which 49 heads and 784 trustees responded to a series of questions on governance best practice, within the categories of:

1. Separation of duties;
2. Confidentiality;
3. Board/head relationship;
4. Strategic mindset;
5. Operational practices.

(I encourage readers to spend a few minutes familiarizing themselves with the survey at

The survey was motivated by consistent feedback to the SAIS team that governance, in its best practice form, is not as ingrained as it should be. As one long-time independent school consultant is fond of saying, "Only two things pose a mortal threat to independent schools ... gross financial mismanagement and bad governance." 

For this survey, a 1 "strongly disagree" to 5 "strongly agree" scale was used. For all questions, heads and trustees were asked to rate their agreement with a question that reflected best practice governance. Readers might think about the responses to the questions as follows: if best practice governance were happening all questions would be answered a "5" because the questions reflect best practice. Any deviation from best practice ("5") reflects something less than ideal governance practice. With greater deviation from "5" reflecting greater deviation from best practice governance. The reader should also note that not all the questions from the survey were included in this analysis, primarily due to space limitations and selecting questions that had more interesting implications.

The approach taken for the analyses in this FastStats was to first assess the overall magnitude of responses for heads, chairs and trustees and then to compare the responses of heads, chairs and trustees. The reader should note that because the agreement responses of chairs did not differ much from all trustees, I focus on comparisons between heads versus chairs/trustees. The reader should also note that I amalgamated the findings across the four years that the survey has been given after noting no significant trends across years.

Essential Finding

The ratings of heads are consistently and often significantly different from both chairs and all trustees. In every case where there is a difference, heads agreed less than chairs and trustees that best practice governance was happening at their schools.

Overall Governance Ratings

Figure 1 shows that heads, chairs and trustees have moderately strong agreement (about 4 out of 5) when all 20 governance questions used for this analysis are combined. Although, at 3.85 versus 4.13 and 4.02, heads overall agreement ratings are slightly lower than both chairs and trustees. More interesting agreement differences surface when you analyze specific questions.


Separation of Duties

Figure 2 shows three questions from the separation of duties category. With appeals from families, heads, chairs and trustees are relatively consistent (although not overly strong) in their agreement ratings that boards should not hear appeals from families regarding a head’s decision. For me this finding is a little surprising because I would have thought that the heads’ agreement rating might be higher.

The second question the board only sets the head’s compensation finds a rather large difference between the ratings of heads versus the ratings of both chairs and trustees. Heads very strongly agree with this statement, whereas chairs and trustees are in moderate agreement. [1]

For the third question, financial aid decisions are made without board input there is high agreement among heads, chairs and trustees, although heads feel more strongly.



Figure 3 shows three more separation of duties questions. The first, the board does not provide an open forum for parents and others to address grievances shows another difference in the ratings of heads and trustees. Heads agree with this statement more than trustees, however, the ratings from both heads and trustees are not the strongest agreement ratings in the survey. Both heads and trustees realize that although providing an open forum for parent grievances is a bad standing policy the reality is that the unique and complex circumstances surrounding some grievances may require a more open forum.

The second refers to whether the board should not approve candidates for employment (besides the head). With this question, the heads spoke loud and clear with a very high agreement rating. The trustee agreement rating was also relatively high, but not nearly as definitive as the heads.

Results for the third question shows moderately strong and consistent agreement among heads and trustees that the board does not spend too much time putting out fires rather than planning for the future




The second governance category from the survey reflects aspects of confidentiality. From Figure 4, we see that heads agree far less than trustees that conversations from board meetings are kept confidential by trustees. Similarly, they agree less that trustees speak with one voice outside of the formal board confines.

As a head for a number of years, I understand how tricky confidentiality can be. I have experienced wonderful trustees with an excellent sense for governance falling into the trap of just telling their spouses ... who then just tell their best friends ... etc. Pretty soon, that confidential item is all the talk in the carpool line.



Board-Head Relationship

Figure 5 displays the results for four board-head relationship questions. Relative to other categories, there is higher agreement overall and more alignment between heads and trustee ratings. For example, for both the board gives adequate personal support and guidance and the board assumes responsibility for the success of the head there are strong and consistent agreement ratings across heads and trustees. The second two questions, which require a more nuanced, proactive and effortful support, show more variation in the ratings of agreement between heads and trustees. Heads agree less that trustees ask how they can help and trust the judgment of the head.



Strategic Mindset

The overall agreement ratings to the statements in this category of governance are the weakest of any category. 

For the two questions strategic thinking at board meetings and formal strategic planning the head disagrees more than trustees that it happens, although trustees seem to recognize the weakness as well. The lowest rated question in the entire survey is board meetings regularly include professional development. Both heads and trustees disagree significantly that this is happening. 

Finally, for what is perhaps the most fundamental question on the survey...trustees slightly more than heads, say trustees suspend personal motivation. However, even trustee ratings of agreement are rather low considering the fundamental importance of healthy board functioning that hinges on following this governance best practice. The question speaks to what I think is the most difficult challenge for most trustees - when and how to wear the parent hat. The modest agreement responses by trustees points to the essential challenge and perhaps the simple reality that many trustees face in the dual role of parent and trustee. It also points to the importance of having a balance of parents and non-parents on our boards to offset the “parent hat” influence.



Operational Practices

Figure 7 highlights some key operational practices for trustees. Whether trustees regularly evaluate the head is moderately agreed on by both heads and trustees. Indicating that this is not as well-practiced as it could be. In another very low agreed with question, there seems to be a lot of room for improvement on the board regularly reviewing its own performance. Also, heads do not agree strongly that trustees support the school as much as they can both as a giving priority and especially by participating in the cultivation and solicitation of donors. Whereas, trustees agree more that the school is a giving priority for them and agree less that they are involved with the cultivation and solicitation of donors.




The most salient conclusion from the data presented is that trustees, including the board chair, believe they follow governance best practices more so than heads of school believe that trustees are following governance best practices, especially in the areas of separation of duties, confidentiality, strategic mindset and operational practices. Whereas with the category of board-head relationship, the ratings are similar.

How is this interpreted? Are heads of school more pessimistic? Are they more realistic?  Perhaps both? It is likely the typical head of school is more knowledgeable about governance and what truly constitutes best practice. So they will have a better idea of what it looks like relative to the typical trustee.[2]

Additionally, it is likely that heads, as a whole, have a deeper and more vested interest in good governance happening at their school because, after all, their happiness and their livelihoods depend on it. That is, if there is “bad” governance happening, there’s a good chance the head is at least unhappy and perhaps on the hot seat.  

Whatever is happening, the findings often point to a sizable gap between the governance beliefs and practices of heads and the governance beliefs and practices of trustees. In terms of narrowing the gap, we can start by returning to the particularly low-rated question regarding the regular professional development of trustees. Both heads and trustees agree that the professional growth opportunities of trustees are scarce and/or weak. Systematically intervening with regular governance education, even when it seems trustees do not need it, is foundational.

As an indication that SAIS boards might be open to an increase in professional growth opportunities, it is worth reiterating that both heads and trustees recognized that boards do not spend enough time thinking strategically, so the mindset that must precede the change seems to have some roots.

There’s clearly so much more to say on this important topic. For example, how would the results shake out if the size of the school was a categorical variable? Would smaller schools show less or more variation in their governance knowledge? 

Finally, it is worth highlighting once more that chairs’ beliefs and practices regarding governance did not vary that much from trustees as a whole. This is a surprising result to me. I would have hoped that the chair of the board’s knowledge, beliefs and practices regarding governance would have been more aligned with the head of school. 

As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have thoughts on the nature of governance in our schools.


Jeff Mitchell
Head of School
Currey Ingram Academy
Brentwood, TN



[1] This might be an ambiguous question. It reads...the board only sets the salary of the head of school.” More heads may have interpreted the questions as it was meant: the board only sets the salary of the head not anyone else. Some trustees may have interpreted as this is our “only” responsibility, which, of course, it is not.

[2] It is also possible that there is a systematic bias in the responses. Heads are responding based on their observations of groups of individuals and it is possible that extreme and relatively rare behavior impacts their agreement ratings disproportionately. Whereas, trustees who responded are likely thinking more about their own behavior, which taken individually will align with best practice more frequently.

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