Chapter 3: Board Governance


School boards are responsible for the provision of publicly funded education within their jurisdictions. They are leaders of publicly funded education in their communities and in the province. They carry out this responsibility within relevant statutes and regulations. A provincial funding model determines the funds that each board receives from the provincial government to deliver the education services and programs that support student achievement. Through their local governance school boards exercise their leadership to develop strategic plans, direct policy-making and approve allocation of resources. This governance role sets the conditions that will provide a high quality education for every student to meet high standards of achievement and to succeed in school and in life. Effective governance also ensures that the education system remains accountable to the people of Ontario.

What Is Governance?

Governance provides a framework and a process for the allocation of decision-making powers. Good governance is the exercise of these powers through ethical leadership. School boards are the embodiment of local governance in action. Through their decisions and policies they demonstrate to their communities effective stewardship of the board’s resources in the interests of students and the community as whole.

Ultimately, governance is the exercise of authority, direction, and accountability to serve the higher moral purpose of public education. A governance structure defines the roles, relationships, and behavioural parameters for the board and its staff.

In education, the true test of any board’s governance structure is its effectiveness in promoting and sustaining a board’s achievement standards, accomplishing goals designed to bring positive results to communities, and demonstrating accountability. Effective board governance relies on a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. Trustees, as individuals do not have authority to make decisions or take action on behalf of the board. They are members of the board and it is the board as a whole that exercises authority and makes decisions and does so in the interests of all students of the board. Trustees are required to uphold the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board. As trustees communicate with their constituents and hear their concerns, they must at the same time convey that changes to existing board policy require consideration by the board as a whole. Trustees facilitate the concerns of their constituents by advising them as to which board staff can answer their questions or deal directly with their concerns. In some cases, trustees may bring problems that affect the entire jurisdiction to the board for resolution.

In carrying out their role trustees have the very real challenge of balancing their responsibilities and allegiances as representatives of their communities with their role as education leaders within the decision-making body of the board as a whole. Trustees are committed to, and are required under the Education Act, to bring forward to the board the concerns of parents, students, and supporters of the board; yet as members of a governing body they must work collaboratively with fellow board members and make policy decisions that are beneficial to the entire school district community. This focus can mean that the ultimate decisions made are at variance with the specific interests of a particular geographical constituency or interest group. (Chapter 4, The Role of Trustees.)

The trend in changes to legislative obligations and in public expectations increases the pressures on school boards to demonstrate continued improvements in student achievement while being accountable in very transparent ways for the resources they govern; this includes government funding that is increasingly prescribed. The context within which boards operate includes meeting the challenges of maintaining quality as enrolment declines, particularly across large geographic areas which are often remote and isolated, and in environments where educational services must meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students.

In order to respond effectively to these challenges, school boards continue to examine their functions and their roles in relation to both the public they serve and the senior employees of the board who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school board. More than ever, effective governance, characterized by the structures and processes of decision making and accountability within the system, is critically important. To model a school system where there is a focus on continuous learning, effective school boards regularly review their performance in the governing role and plan for ongoing improvement of their practices as a governing body.

The law plays a significant role in defining governance structures and processes for school boards. School boards are “creatures of statute”, and their powers and accountability frameworks are, to a significant extent, prescribed by provincial legislation and regulations. Effective school board governance means that there is a governance system in place to ensure that a board has clarified its role and its scope of responsibilities and how it will govern. This includes clarity around the goals it aims to achieve, the strategies it will employ to achieve them and its overall operating norms, processes and procedures. A clear understanding on the part of the school board with regard to its system of governance will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of its policy development, decision-making, business practices and adherence to its legal obligations. It will also influence how the public perceives the efficacy of the board and its value to the community.

Establishing a System of Governance

Newly elected trustees will find that their school board already has a system of governance in place. Learning the existing system is a first step to easing the transition to full and informed participation on the board. With each election, the composition of the board can change and, even if the change involves only one new member, this essentially creates a new board and a new set of relationships. Each new board with its returning and new members should take the opportunity to review its governance structure to ensure that the board members can take ownership of the planning, policy and decision making processes.

Reviews of school board governance in Ontario conducted more than ten years apart outline reassuringly similar approaches and principles by which boards can assess their effectiveness as a governing body.

The report of the School Board Governance Review Committee (2009) (See Note 4) reflects the input from trustees across the province and offered the following principles of effective school board governance:

  • The board of trustees has a clearly stated mission that includes high expectations for student achievement;
  • The board of trustees allocates its resources in support of the goals it has set;
  • The board of trustees holds its system accountable for student achievement through its director of education by regular monitoring of evidence of student achievement;
  • The board of trustees engages with its constituents in the creation of policies that affect them and communicates its progress in raising student achievement;
  • The board of trustees monitors its own performance and takes action to continually improve its governance processes.

In The Road Ahead II: A Report on the Role of School Boards and Trustees, the former Education Improvement Commission (EIC) proposed a process for school boards to follow in establishing and assessing their system of governance. It recommended that each district school board:

  • create a vision in consultation with its staff and community;
  • appoint a director of education who shares the vision and has the skills to work with the board to realize the vision;
  • establish policies critical to achieving the vision;
  • establish a budget consistent with the priorities set out in the vision and policies;
  • develop an organizational model for senior staff and assign responsibilities, so that the vision and policies are implemented throughout the system;
  • establish procedures for monitoring the implementation of its policies, and tie these procedures to the performance appraisal of the director of education;
  • communicate its performance to the community and the ministry; and
  • reassess its vision (on a regular basis.). (See Note 5)

The steps in the process described above can be further defined as follows:

Create a vision: A board-wide vision statement goes hand in hand with a formal strategic planning process. Historically, most boards have had vision statements and strategic planning processes with a scope of from one to five years to help them focus and prioritize the board’s work. Since 2009, the Education Act has required all boards to develop a multi-year strategic plan (MYSP), at least three years in scope, which is aimed at achieving the boards' goals. The Act also requires the board of trustees to review the plan annually with the board’s director of education. This multi-year strategic plan aligns with mission, vision and goals of the school board and serves to ensure that the board’s directions remain both reflective of the community and are focused on key priorities. Reviewing the board’s strategic plan following the municipal elections offers an effective way for the newly elected board to become meaningfully engaged in the board’s vision and planning process. (A more detailed outline of the multi-year plan process is provided in Chapter 4.)

Share the vision: Effective school boards, working with their director of education, involve their staff and community in the development of their vision and strategic plan. This builds essential elements of ownership and cooperation among staff, parents and the community at large that are necessary to achieve the vision and implement the plan.

Align policy with vision: Part of a strategic planning process should include a cycle of reassessment of board policies. This ensures that all policies are in alignment with the board’s vision statement and strategic plans.

Align budget with vision: The board’s budget is the financial basis for all board activities. It is crucial, therefore, that it reflect the vision and the priorities identified in the board’s strategic plan.

Align organization with vision: All effective boards have a well-defined organizational structure so that board members, staff, and the community can understand the lines of authority and responsibility. An organizational model demonstrates how the board’s vision and priorities are recognized and implemented throughout the system. An organizational model also outlines the governance relationship between the political leadership (the board of trustees) and the administrative leadership (the director of education and senior board staff).

Establish procedures for monitoring the implementation of policies: If the board’s strategic plan includes a policy realignment process, most of the policy-monitoring work will be undertaken as part of that process. However, government laws and regulations change and, therefore, ongoing monitoring of board policies is necessary. Policies also require monitoring for realignment because of changes in the board’s vision or priorities.

Communicate performance: Communicating a board’s vision and strategic planning processes involves everyone who has a stake in the education system and who shares a board’s achievements and challenges. Effective communication raises awareness of roles and responsibilities and supports important relationships. (See Chapter 12, Communications, Media Relations and Social Media.)

School board governance is a fundamental aspect of responsible stewardship. Effective governance cannot be legislated because no single model would work in every organization. The Governance Review Report (2009) agreed: “The Committee concludes that there is no one best model for boards of trustees; in each setting, governance arrangements must take account of the organization’s mission, culture, traditions and relationships. School board governance must also accommodate political processes, including political advocacy and tolerance for dissent.” The key is to begin with a commitment by a school board, regardless of size and organizational culture, to develop and adhere to decision-making processes that are transparent, accountable, and in line with the board’s vision and strategic plan which are focused on student achievement and well-being.

Ultimately, each school board must decide on its own model for effective governance – one that is based on the needs and resources of the system and the community it serves.

Governance Models and Resources on Board Governance

Structure influences behaviour, and it is crucial for school boards to operate within a structure that allows for action and decision making that are reflective, creative and effective.

Governance literature contains many different models. Choosing a model for a particular school board and adapting it to local circumstances requires a thorough examination of the board’s vision, priorities, and governance goals. Each board will find both merits and obstacles in every governance model it considers.

Many school boards already have selected a governance model and have adapted it to their local context and found that it works well. New trustees should become familiar with their board’s governance model if there is one in place. Boards that are in the process of choosing or reviewing their governance model can look to the governance models in use in other district school boards throughout the province for ideas. Your school board association has access to professional and organizational development resources that can be helpful to your board in assessing the effectiveness of its governance model.

Recent studies in Ontario that set out key findings related to effective governance are:

  • The Road Ahead: A Report on the Continuous Improvement in School Board Operations (2013). This report resulting from operational reviews of Ontario’s 72 district school boards identifies factors such as: greater delineation of roles and responsibilities; strong, streamlined decision-making processes; engaging a broader base of stakeholders in the strategic planning processes; organizational structures to ensure performance and accountability of school board administration; improved succession planning; participation in sector-wide councils, committees and working groups. The paper is available at:
  • Strong Districts and their Leadership (2013), Kenneth Leithwood. This study associates strong school district performance with elected boards of trustees whose practice adheres closely to a “policy governance” model. The research covers areas such as: assessing community values and interests and incorporating them in the school system’s mission and vision for students; creating a climate which engages staff and the wider community to support the vision; creating a climate of excellence; using the board’s beliefs and vision for student learning and well-being as the foundation for planning and evaluation; focusing policy making on improvement of student learning and well-being, provision of rich curricula and engaging forms of instruction; development of productive relationships; systematic orientation for board members; respect for senior staff; holding the director accountable for improving teaching and learning; individual member accountability for supporting decisions of the board. The study can be found at:

As well, there are many resources available on board governance, governance in general, and corporate governance, and much of this information can be used and/or adapted by school boards. Among them are the following:

  • Good Governance for School Boards – Trustee Professional Development Program. This online resource, developed by Ontario’s school board associations offers a full range of professional development modules designed specifically to support school board trustees in their governance role. It is available at:
  • School Boards Matter, The Report of the Pan-Canadian Study of School District Governance (2013). This report developed by researchers from Memorial University and the University of Manitoba in collaboration with the Canadian School Boards Association reviews the role of board-governed school districts in contributing to successful public education systems. The report can be found at:
  • Key Work of School Boards, a program of the National School Boards' Association in the United States, is a governance model focused on improving student achievement. You can learn more from the NSBA website at
  • The “20 Questions” series on risk and governance, a product of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants which has done significant work on board governance is available at:
  • Building on Strength: Improving Governance and Accountability in Canada’s Voluntary Sector is a detailed review of governance in the volunteer sector produced by the Panel on Accountability and Governance in the Voluntary Sector. The panel, which was created in 1997 by the Voluntary Sector Roundtable (VSR), an unincorporated group of Canadian national volunteer organizations, produced a discussion paper in 1998, which was widely circulated to many Canadian volunteer sector organizations. In 1999, the panel released Building on Strength, which is based on the responses and advice received following the circulation of the discussion paper. While school boards are not volunteer sector bodies, there are many aspects of governance structure and policy identified in this report that would be helpful to boards that are reviewing or developing governance models. This document is available at
  • The Canadian Comprehensive Auditing Foundation (CCAF) has excellent resources on public sector governance and accountability. Learn more at:
  • Policy Governance is a trademarked governance model developed by John Carver. The basis for this model can be found in his book Basic Principles of Policy Governance, published by Jossey Bass Publishers in 1996. For more information on policy governance, visit:
  • A good resource in the area of corporate governance that has some relevance for the education sector is the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s OECD Principles of Corporate Governance, which can be found online at:
  • Non-profit Governance Models: Problems and Prospects, Patricia Bradshaw, Schulich School of Business, York University, Bryan Hayday, Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program, York University, Ruth Armstrong, Vision Management Services, can be accessed at