July in Washington, D.C. encompasses the almost intolerable heat and humidity that a swamp can offer. The city, coincidentally, was built on a swamp many years ago. However, Washington D.C. was also the sight of the 13th annual National Charter Schools Conference, held just last week. The conference is magnificently put together by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the charter school movement.
Having walked away from the conference with many useful experiences, great industry contacts, and a recharged energy to the mission of advancing the charter school cause, there was one breakout session I attended that stood out for me as being the crucible for all the other topics discussed during the conference. The session dealt with charter school boards and how to find good board members.
Let’s start with this premise – good board members are indeed hard to find. No one will dispute that a passion to the cause, along with a connection to the community, and of course, a desire to serve are all essential qualities for board members. However, what I found most interesting was the lack of mention of a very important skill set -- financial or business acumen. The dichotomy of education and the “business of educating” were never more apparent for me than during that session. Perhaps this bifurcation is due to some typical oversight or even a subconscious desire to prop up lines of demarcation between the two, so as to not soil the former venture, despite the necessity of the latter.
At any rate, it is difficult to argue that a charter school must obtain this symbiotic relationship through a highly functioning board in order to be successful. A vast amount of issues discussed in every charter school board meeting revolves around finance or the need for financial decision-making. This is not an overstatement, when it is reality. Likewise, the session dialogue triggered a recollection of my time as a young congressional intern, when a committee member once remarked “…over two-thirds of all legislation on Capitol Hill is somehow connected to appropriations and energy [committees].”
Today’s boards must have an understanding of funding, funding rules and processes particular to applicable state law. They must also understand federal grant rules. Boards should be aware of cash flow, per pupil revenues and expenditures, and of profit & loss statements, the implications of such on their strategic plans, and on the overall viability of the organization. These are not only preferred skill sets, but crucial ones, so that the business of educating supports the greater mission of actually educating children.