How can the board use sub-committees to improve the way it does business?

There are two types of committees formed by the board: 

  1. Those that consist only of board members (usually called sub-committees of the board) although they may be attended by others and others may be included in discussions and information gathering; and 
  2. Those that are formed by the board but the membership consists of both board members and other non-board members, or even all non-board members only.

For the purpose of this answer, we are going to define "sub-committees" as being made up of board members only. Either of these types of committees can also be "standing" committees which exist in perpetuity, or "ad hoc" committees which exist for only the length of time specified in the motion the board makes when forming them.

Sub-committees can be very helpful in assisting the board in doing their work more efficiently and effectively. They work best with boards of seven or more members. Boards of five or fewer are difficult to subdivide into smaller committees. Boards using sub-committees must have a high level of trust among board members. If the members do not trust each other, and insist on redoing all the sub-committee work at the full board meeting, then there is no benefit to having work done in sub-committees.

The benefits of using sub-committees include: 

  • More thorough research and consideration of information.
  • More time at the regular board meeting for regular business. 
  • Better dialogue between committee members and staff and community members on the specific topic.

The problems that may occur with the use of sub-committees include:

Increased staff time involved in preparing for the additional meetings. Boards that use sub-committees have more meetings overall. 

  • Discussion of high impact decisions may be held away from the full board. Some topics are better served if they are discussed by the full board at a regular board meeting.
  • Sub-committees may assume responsibility for things not within board authority. Beware of micro management.

In order to promote more effective board work, and avoid the pitfalls listed above it is important that the purpose of the committee fits within the board’s governing role.

Suggested committees might be:

  1. Board operations committee: This committee would be responsible for preparation of the meeting agendas, the superintendent’s annual evaluation, the board’s self evaluation, any board development planning, and maintenance of the board/superintendent working relationship as well as policy review and development. 
  2. Budget and planning committee: Responsible for working with the superintendent on preparation of long term goals, vision, mission, and strategic planning and the annual budget for recommendation to the board and district budget committee.
  3. Monitoring and reporting committee: Works to design the performance reports that are brought to the board for regular review on all educational and building functions.
  4. Community engagement and communications committee: Plans and implements the board role in the communications strategy with the district, clarifies the district’s public image, and maintains strong working relationships with community leaders.

It is not recommended to form committees that describe administrative management functions. For example: Personnel, Building Maintenance, and Extra Curricular activity oversight committees can be invitations to micro manage in areas which are not board work.

Ad hoc sub-committees (or "general committees") are those formed for a specific project for a specific period of time. Frequently boards will use ad hoc committees to research and report on recommendations for building additions/expansions, technology plans, or major changes to the districts operations. It is important that the scope of the work of the committee be narrowly and clearly defined by a set of detailed guidelines voted on by the board.

Small school boards may benefit from using committees of the whole. The board as a whole functions as the sub-committee. In essence a special board meeting is held as a work session to discuss a single topic in detail, and make a recommendation to be taken up for a vote at a future regular board meeting.

Finally, it is important to remember that all committees formed by the board and reporting to the board, regardless of who is on them and whether a quorum of board members is in attendance, must follow all public meetings requirements for meeting postings, accessibility and the recording of minutes.

For more information on this question, Ask Betsy's Team.