The KIPP New Orleans board of directors, which oversees nine schools on eight campuses, participated in a two-day board retreat and training Nov. 1-2 at the Iberia Bank conference room on St. Charles Avenue.
At the training, board members and KIPP CEO Rhonda Alusie heard from Brian L. Carpenter, a charter school board expert and former CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute at Central Michigan University, who told them how to put policies and procedures in place to best serve students and to avoid potential legal liabilities.
“Many high-performing schools have had their charter revoked because their board did things that could have been (avoided),” Carpenter said. “Kids have had to suffer for the actions of adults who sit around the (board) table.”
Carpenter acknowledged the delicate balance of power between board members and the management staff of charter schools, and said board members need to be reminded that individually they have no power; only the board as a whole has the power to make decisions.
Carpenter asked pointed questions of the board members regarding continuity and communications.
“Why is there turnover of the executive director every 24-to-36 months?”* Carpenter asked. “Why does a talented teacher decide to stay at a particular school? They all want reliability. You don’t want the CEO to have to guess what the board wants.”
Friction between board members and management can be disastrous, Carpenter said.
“Board chaos leads to underperforming schools,” he said.
The main job of the board is to make sure the school is on solid financial ground and to make sure board members don’t act in ways that open the organization up to a lawsuit, Carpenter said.
“You have to set policy and safeguard board members,” he said. “The board should have procedures in place in order to make all their roles clear.”
Boards need to go further, he added, by making board members sign disclosure forms and ethical-conduct agreements.
“It’s really an insurance policy,” he said. “Most standards are steps taken to make sure the board will not be sued. Document them in your minutes. Make a crumb trail of due diligence.”
Carpenter said the answer to a successful board is well-run committees.
“It is so simple, it eludes us. Committees are designed to help the board do its work,” he said. Most of the work of a board should be done in committees, not during regular board meetings, he said. Having set committees with set duties leads to a stable and reliable board, Carpenter said.
Specific to the KIPP board’s bylaws, Carpenter suggested the board’s finance committee change its name to “financial oversight and audit-selection committee,” which expressly describes the role of the committee and can absolve them from potential legal issues.
“The mission of a financial oversight committee (should be) to assist the board – chaired by the treasurer – and make audit recommendations,” he said.
Carpenter said choosing an auditor should always fall to the board.
“Management should not recommend an auditor,” Carpenter said.
Board members also should question all school budgets presented to them, rather than make blanket approvals assuming management is handling everything properly, Carpenter said.
“Ask: ‘What about a contingency fund? What about special education funding? What are your enrollment risks? What about a surplus?’” he said.
“Look at these (items) from year to year,” Carpenter said. “Many times, boards don’t know the difference between budget actuals and financials. (Many members) don’t know how to read it, and it’s approved by them that day.”
Carpenter said board treasurers often rubber-stamp invoices without question, which can lead to mismanagement of funds, and allow school leaders to misuse or steal school money. That can involve the unknowing board treasurer in a potential lawsuit.
Carpenter brought up a recent theft by an official at Langston Hughes Academy Charter School in New Orleans. In 2010, Kelly Thompson, the former Langston Hughes Academy business manager, pleaded guilty to stealing $660,000 from the charter school. She was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
“The board should check the bank statements against the school’s register,” he said. “(And) when board members get included in travel expenses, figure out if board members should be reimbursed like staff.”
Carpenter said boards also should establish a whistleblower policy with avenues to report financial malfeasance or any other misbehavior by members of the school’s management.
A way to streamline board meetings and agendas is to have extensive and thorough board calendars and charts, covering everything from when budgets need to be voted on to when school scores should be released.
“This way, nothing falls through the cracks, nothing is left off the calendar, and the agenda writes itself,” Carpenter said.
In other committee business, Carpenter said a committee that is not normally established among boards should be a “nominating” committee, where members review resumes and recommend new board members.
Carpenter also advised that issues should not be brought up for the first time at a public forum and board members should not be asked if anyone has “anything else” to consider during a board meeting, Carpenter said.
“There’s nothing in Robert’s Rules about that,” he said. “If they have something (to add), it should have been on the agenda.”
He said all of these suggestions should be in place in order to ensure student success – the main goal of any good charter school board.
“Student performance is a reflection of board performance,” Carpenter said. He commended the KIPP board for attending the retreat, which is done annually, or whenever several new board members are added. Carpenter said he’s looking forward to how the board will continue to improve the running of its schools.
“I’m very excited about what you’re doing,” he said.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story misinterpreted a quote from Carpenter as saying that KIPP had high turnover in its executive director position. Carpenter was speaking generally about an issue that a charter school board might have to address if it has high turnover in its executive positions.