As part of its continued focus to provide resources to school board presidents, the New Jersey School Boards Association will be answering questions through its monthly Board President’s Corner column. Our next question is below. Submit your question and you may see it featured next time.

A board member has suggested we don’t use separate committees and instead work as a “committee of the whole.” What are the pros and cons of working that way as a board?

There is no right answer as to whether a committee of the whole or a committee system is the best choice for any given school district. You must consider the dynamics of your school board and district, as well as the challenges you face, when deciding what system would be best positioned to govern your district and advance public education.

The board should review its policy on the board’s governance structure and ensure that it is following the current policy. If the board wishes to revise its board governance policy, it must be voted on by the full board.

A committee of the whole involves the entire board considering problems. Members are free to deliberate, ask questions, reject or table recommendations and ask for more information. Debate by all the members of the board can be more productive, as the group is likely to collaboratively point out benefits or recognize oversights in the recommendations than is a smaller group, such as a committee. When a board utilizes a committee of the whole, its meetings are generally longer since all topics are discussed by all members at the meeting.

However, there are some who believe that the committee system offers benefits that a committee of the whole can’t provide, including:

  • Allowing for more work to be done and also allowing for shorter meetings, freeing up time for board members.
  • Using an administrator as part of each committee promotes trust and understanding of details and complexities, allowing board members to gather relevant data and information, which informs committee recommendations to the full board.
  • Committees allow members to get their teeth into areas that interest them, and lead to a better outcome for the students and staff.
  • The president, elected by the majority of the board, shows leadership when making appointments to standing committees. Serving on a committee allows individual members to enhance their leadership skills, as well, especially for those members who chair committees.
  • New members get the opportunity to learn quickly about the issues facing the district.

Committee members work with an agenda of items; these agendas could be sent to all board members. The committee should also provide the full board with committee meeting reports to keep board members informed.

Committees only recommend action, as it takes the majority of the board to approve, and at times subcommittees are not always unanimous in their recommendations. The full board can raise other issues the committee did not consider, which would then be considered and decided upon by the full board.

Committees can be regulated by policy as to when / where the meeting is held, who can attend, and, when advisable, the committee meetings can be opened to all board members and administrators who wish to attend (check applicable Open Public Meeting Act statutes). It is recommended that committee meeting dates and times are developed and scheduled well in advance to ensure that all committee members are able to attend.

Arguments Against Committees

There are some, however, who do not like the committee system. Some criticisms include:

  • Committees tend to get board members too involved in administrative detail and take them away from their role as policy makers.
  • It is often viewed that to question a subcommittee report in public is synonymous with implying distrust and suspicion of motives and methods. Cliques and factions may develop over issues of power and resource allocation.
  • Board members not on a committee may feel left out of the loop, denied information on facts and processes that might enable them to make better informed decisions. This can lead to a growing level of mistrust or disenfranchisement.
  • It’s better for new board members to have time to get to know and understand each other, the dynamics of the whole team and the larger scope of issues facing the board, rather than to be thrust into a committee system where they only can see a small portion of the district’s scope and needs.

Some have also wondered whether closed committee meetings are sending a negative message to the public, since they result in board members doing things beyond closed doors. With that said, the committees should be presenting a report on their most recent committee meetings so that the public is aware that the committees have met and are aware of what topics the committees are addressing.

In a committee system, board policy recommendations are brought to the full board for a first and second reading, thereby giving all board members the opportunity to discuss and propose revisions prior to final approval of a policy.

Making a Decision

If you are going to use a committee system, the first thing you should do is make sure you need committees. Ask yourself: What will each committee do that the entire board or the administrative staff can’t do better?

From there, you must determine if you want to have a standing committee or a specific committee for a special purpose (an ad hoc committee).

If a committee is established, be sure it has a written charge that clearly covers its responsibilities, its administrative liaison and how often it reports to the full board. Make clear that the committee should not go beyond its charge without the consent of the full board. All board members should have a copy of this charge, which should be in the board’s bylaws.

Include in the written charge the relative responsibility of the committee, of the entire board and of the administrative staff in pursuing the committee’s purposes. Clarify in writing if there are to be time limits on the committee.

Committees should meet only when they have something substantive about which to meet. The fewer committees the better. NJSBA’s field service representatives have recommendations for committee structures that can assist a board in streamlining its committees.

Also, remember that committees make recommendations to the full board, which the full board deliberates and decides. Committees do not make decisions for the board unless they are authorized through a vote of the full board to do so.