Chapter 4: The Role of School Board Trustees

Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success. — Stephen Covey

Each individual school board member has a duty to contribute to the board’s mandate of leadership and oversight of public education. — (School Boards Matter, 2013)

A clear understanding of a school board trustee’s role and responsibilities is fundamental to good governance. A school trustee is a member of a board, not a member of a parliament, and it is important for both trustees and the general public to understand that school board trustees hold no individual authority. The school board, as a corporate body, is the legislative source of all decisions, and individual trustees are granted no authority through the Education Act. Unlike provincial and federal parliaments, school board members do not vote according to an official “affiliation”, nor are there “governing” trustees and “opposition” trustees.

The Education Act provides clarity about the responsibility of individual trustees to bring to the board the concerns of parents, students and supporters of the board and to consult with them on the board’s multi-year plan. It is through the process of collaborating and engaging in joint decision making as members of the board that trustees work with the values, priorities, and expectations of the community to translate them into policy.

Once the board of trustees has voted, individual trustee members are legally bound by the majority decision, regardless of whether they supported it during debate or voted in opposition. They are required to uphold the implementation of resolutions passed by the board. Although they may not agree with the decision, trustees should be able to explain the rationale for the policy and ensure that it is understood, implemented, and monitored. Trustees who wish to explain a school board decision should do so in this context and express any divergence in their personal views in a manner that respects the decision-making authority of the collective board.

It is clear that trustees carry a dual responsibility. This is recognized in the Education Act and was underscored in the Governance Review report (2009):

“As a member of the board, an individual trustee is expected to act within the board’s by-laws and be loyal to the board’s decisions. However, as elected persons, trustees are also expected to advocate for the interests of their constituencies.”

An effective school board:

  • knows why it exists, what difference it aims to make in the community and develops a plan for this purpose;
  • maintains a focus on student achievement and well-being;
  • functions as a team;
  • serves as a role model for the education system and the community;
  • makes informed decisions;
  • strives for excellent communications with its partners andconstituents;
  • has a clear sense of the difference between its role and that of senior management;
  • understands the distinction between policy development and implementation;
  • is accountable for its performance;
  • holds the director of education accountable for effectively implementing the policies of the board;
  • monitors the effectiveness of policies and implementation plans; and
  • ensures that local provincial and federal politicians understand local issues and needs, and encourages them to make education a high priority.

Trustees as Members of School Boards

As members of the board, trustees collectively carry out the following key roles and responsibilities:

Electing a Board Chair. Each year trustees elect from among themselves the trustee who will be chair of the board. There is a strong collegial relationship between the chair and the members of the board. In electing a fellow trustee to this leadership position, they are placing confidence in the chair to guide the board in its work. Clarity of roles is vital to effective governance and it will be important for the board to discuss and come to consensus on specific responsibilities they wish the chair to undertake on their behalf in addition to the duties of chair as set out in the Education Act. Key considerations, for example, will be any division of responsibilities around the role of public spokesperson for the board and expectations on the flow of communications between the chair and the board of trustees and the director of education. (The role of the chair is covered in greater detail in Chapter 7.)

Establishing vision and climate. As members of the school board, trustees play a critical role in establishing the board’s mission, vision, values, goals and climate. Through their consultative work with their community they shape a vision for the board that is reflective of the input of parents, students and supporters of the board. They then work in consultation with the senior leadership team to develop a strategic plan and policies that determine the climate of the board. Together they ensure that the mission, vision and goals are brought alive and used consistently as decision-making tools and beacons for the future. (See Note 5). Trustees play an essential role in creating the conditions for: achieving excellence in student learning; ensuring equity and promoting well-being and; enhancing public confidence in publicly funded education. The board of trustees models and emphasizes teamwork and shared accountability among board and school staff.

Planning, goal setting, and appraisal. Strategic planning is a key leadership responsibility of members of the school board. The Education Act requires boards to have a multi-year strategic plan (MYSP) that is directed at achieving the board’s goals for student achievement and well-being, a positive school climate, effective stewardship of the board’s resources and the delivery of effective and appropriate educational programs. This plan describes what the board hopes to achieve, what its priorities are and how it plans to meet its objectives. The MYSP is developed through a process that involves the board, the director of education, board staff, employee organizations, students and the community. It will have goals for each year of the plan. The board is required under the Education Act to review the plan annually with the director of education and make it accessible to the public, usually through the board’s website.

Policy making. A key responsibility of any school board is to develop and adopt policies that are based on the board’s vision and that provide a framework for implementationof the vision. Recent research (Leithwood 2013) indicates that “growth in student achievement and well-being is encouraged when elected boards of trustees focus on board policy and concern themselves with ensuring the district mission and vision drive the district’s improvement efforts.” The Education Act requires boards to develop and maintain policies and organizational structures that promote the board’s goals and encourage pupils to pursue their educational goals. It is the responsibility of board members to monitor and evaluate how efficiently the board’s policies are implemented and how effective they are in achieving the board’s goals. Policies will cover such matters as student support services, instructional material, administration of schools, staffing, transportation, accommodation reviews, facilities and equipment.

Recruiting and reviewing performance of the chief executive. In many cases, trustees, during their term of office, must recruit and hire a new director of education. Reviewing the performance of the director of education is the responsibility of the board of trustees and is an important governance practice. The measures in this performance review are directly related to the achievement of goals identified in the Multi-Year Strategic Plan. The annual performance review complements the annual review of the MYSP and the annual review the board undertakes related to its governance role.

Student achievement and well-being. The board is entrusted with the task of adopting policies that set clear expectations and standards for student achievement and that promote student well-being in accordance with provincial legislation and regulations. All decisions about programs of instruction, student services, learning materials and matters regarding student safety should be based on the board’s policies aimed at promoting student achievement. School board trustees are ambassadors for student achievement and well-being in their local communities.

Allocating resources. The most visible and significant policy that the board will approve is the annual budget. Board members participate in the budget process, ensuring that funding is aligned with the board’s priorities for improving student achievement and well-being, and that all legislated obligations are taken into consideration. A board is legally required to ensure effectivestewardship of the board’s resources and to file a balanced budget.

Staffing. The director of education is the sole employee who reports directly to the board; recruitment and evaluation of staff is delegated through the director to the board’s administrative leadership team. However, the school board is responsible for establishing policy governing all employment procedures, collective agreements, and other terms of employment.

School facilities. The board is responsible for setting policy relating to facilities, including: maintenance, acquisition and disposal of sites; building renewal plans; and site operation. All policies relating to facilities must first take into consideration requirements related to the achievement and well-being of students of the board.

Student supports. While school boards are primarily engaged in the provision of education services, they do so with regard for the promotion of student well-being. The board sets policies that guide the actions of administration and school staff in their dealings with students and their families. In this regard, issues such as student safety, student discipline, food services, attendance, matters related to health, and student transportation are significant matters for the attention of school board members.

Communication. In carrying out its responsibilities, a board must engage in effective communication with school staff, students and their families, community members, and others.

Fulfilling the role of elected representative of the community is challenging, particularly those serving large and/or diverse constituencies. Trustees must also take into consideration that not all their constituents have school-aged children; they must be champions of the broader purpose that an effective public education system serves in building a highly-skilled, prosperous and cohesive society that benefits everyone.

While democracy does not ensure that everyone will get exactly what they want, it does entitle everyone to a voice. Most boards allow groups and individuals to make written and oral submissions to the board. Trustees should encourage their constituents to take full advantage of these opportunities.

There are various ways to promote effective communication with the community, such as through school councils, parent involvement committees, community groups, parent organizations, public meetings, newsletters, the media, telephone, and the Internet. Networkswith local colleges and universities, with First Nation communities and organizations, and with local business organizations including the Chamber of Commerce are also helpful. Regular dialogue will enhance a trustee’s ability to represent constituents and help to build understanding and consensus in the community. Community input helps trustees to be clear about their communities' concerns and priorities and to bring these forward as they contribute to board discussions and formulate workable solutions. (See Chapter 11, Working with School Councils and Communities and Chapter 12, Communications, Media Relations and Social Media.)

Policy Making

A policy is primarily a principle or rule that guides decisions that will achieve the organization’s goals. It articulates what must be done and the rationale for it but does not deal with how it is to be done. Procedures and protocols, which are usually administrative, spell out how policies will be implemented.

Policy is intended to reflect the board’s goals and philosophy, and provide standards to guide the school system. Policy provides overall direction for the system, a framework for the development of implementation plans, and administrative procedures and criteria to ensure accountability. It is through policy that the board informs the public, the administration, and other staff of its intent. All policies should align with the board’s vision and goals.

Policy development is a key way in which trustees can influence the direction of education. This work is complex and requires a broad perspective, with the recognition that policies must be applied to the whole board. In order to make effective policy, the needs and priorities of the whole community must first be assessed. This involves consultation with interested parties – including school councils, employee groups, and others – at all stages of the development process.

Creating good policy can be a long and intensive process, but the benefits justify the effort. With clear policy for guidance, decisions are simplified and problems are more easily solved. Clear policy can, for example, facilitate consistent application in decisions where competing values are at play. There is greater stability and continuity for the school system at times of key staff turnover or when new trustees join the board. The ongoing monitoring and regular evaluation of policy ensures that it continues to fulfill its purpose.

As elected representatives, trustees are expected to develop public policy in an open and accountable way. The process for developing policy may vary depending on the size of the board. Boards may choose to begin policy development at the committee level, in a standing committee or a special-purpose ad hoc committee. Boards may also simply choose to use the committee of the whole board for this purpose. Generally, administrative staff are assigned to support committee members with the information and material they need. Board members rely on the director of education and senior staff for expertise and advice to help them reach informed decisions.

It is important to consider a particular policy’s effect on different groups and, where possible, to involve the major partners from the beginning. Partners, such as school councils, who have been meaningfully engaged in consultations, are more likely to understand and support a board’s decision. Public consultation on policy development is one important way that trustees serve their communities and ensure accountability to their constituents.

Policy decisions are not always unanimous. Trustees must use their broad range of backgrounds and viewpoints to determine a sound policy that is fair and considers the interests of all students within the jurisdiction of the board.

Trustees who disagree with a majority decision may enter a minority report, and they may inform their constituents of their opposition. However, once the vote has been decided, the new policy becomes the policy of the whole board and its implementation must be supported by all members of the board.

Financial Stewardship

School boards receive their funding from the province of Ontario through an education funding formula. (This is set out in detail in Chapter 8.) Boards also have authority to pass bylaws to collect education development charges on new real estate developments under certain circumstances. Any revenues from this source must be applied to new school sites. Bylaws for education developmentcharges are subject to the legislative framework laid out in Part IX, Division E, of the Education Act and Ontario Regulation 20/98 (Education Development Charges – General).

Within the funding provided by the ministry it is the responsibility of trustees to develop a balanced budget that reflects the board’s vision, is responsive to the needs of the community and supports the board’s multi-year plan. While board administrators oversee day- to-day spending, the board is the steward of its resources and must ensure that funds are spent according to the approved budget.

Since school boards rely on the provincial government for funding, their flexibility in adding to or adapting local programming is limited by the dollars available. It is the responsibility of board members to help their constituentsunderstand the parameters within which the budget is developed.

Boards establish their own budget process. How the process is structured will vary depending on the size and dynamics of the board. For example, the whole board may sit as a budget committee, or a group of trustees may form a budget committee and bring a recommended budget forward for the consideration of the whole board. Often board administrators and some community members participate on the budget committee. In some boards, trustees set the limits within which they want the budget developed and then ask administrators to prepare a plan.

Boards must adopt budgets during open meetings and should, by holding public consultations, actively seek the viewpoints of interested parties, including school councils and the board’s parent involvement committee before finalizing a budget. Public sessions also provide an opportunity for parents, students, taxpayers, businesspeople, and board staff to offer their opinions and to indicate their level of support for the directions proposed by the board.

The fiscal year for school boards is September 1 to August 31, which coincides with the school operational year. Boards usually hold public consultations on budgets beginning in the spring. However, budgets cannot be finalized until the government announces the Grants for Student Needs (GSN) for the year ahead. This announcement usually occurs towards the end of March each year.

In 2009-10, the Ministry of Education introduced funding to support the creation of an internal audit function in school boards. In September 2010, Ontario Regulation 361/10 (Audit Committees) was enacted into law mandating the creation of audit committees by all school boards. These approaches facilitatean increased focus on transparency and accountability.

The scope of the internal audit function is broad and may involve topics such as governance, risk management and controls over the efficiency and effectiveness of operations (including safeguardingof assets), the reliability of financial and management reporting, and compliance with laws, regulations, policies and procedures. Internal auditors report their findings to the audit committee during the fiscal year in order to help the school boards achieve their stated objectives.

Audit committees are comprised of trustee and non-trustee members who assist the board of trustees to oversee and objectively assess the performance of the organization, its management and its auditors.

School Boards as Employers

The school board is the employer of all employees in its schools and in the board’s administrative offices and holds staff accountable through its director of education and through its policies. These policies address the hiring, transfer, promotion, and termination of all school board staff. Implementation of the policies is managed through the director of education and reported to the board of trustees. In some boards trustees may participate in interviews for the selection of superintendents. For information on the roles of directors of education and supervisory officers, and their working relationships with the board of trustees, see Chapter 1, An Overview of Ontario’s Publicly Funded Education System.

There should be clearly defined relationships among the board of trustees, the director of education, and senior staff. The board of trustees depends on senior staff for information and educational expertise; the director of education and senior staff look to the board for vision, direction, and community input. In general, trustees are responsible for setting the overall direction for the board, while the director of education and senior staff are responsible for providing advice on, and implementing, board policies. Clear lines of communication that enable trustees, board administrators, and school staff to understand their respective roles are especiallyimportant in handling the concerns of parents and others in the community.

Other areas of responsibility related to a board’s role as employer include workplace health and safety, accessibility, adherence to human rights and equity policies, and collective bargaining (see Chapter 6 Legal Responsibilities and Liabilities, and Chapter 10, Collective Bargaining).

Director of Education

The director of education is the sole employee who reports directly to the board. The board of trustees is responsible for the recruitment, selection and performance review of the director of education. As a matter of policy the board defines the responsibilities of the director as the chief executive officer to take leadership in implementing the strategic directions and policies of the board and report regularly on their implementation to the board of trustees as the governing body.

With regard to performance review, the board and the director of education will have a mutual understanding of the performanceoutcomes expected of the director. These are grounded in the job description of the director and in his/her role for implementation of the board’s multi-year plan.

A trusting, mutually respectful and cooperative relationship between the board of trustees and its director of education and a mutual understanding of their distinct roles lead to effective policy implementation and achievement of the board’s goals.

Selecting the Director of Education

Selecting a new director of education is perhaps the most important decision a board may make in its term of office. Consistent high quality leadership from the director of education is a key factor in the success of a school board in meeting its student achievement priorities. When recruiting and selecting a new director, the board must look for the very best candidate and should ensure that there is an open, professional, confidential and objective competition which invites a broad range of candidates, both internal and external.

Effective boards spend time on planning for the succession of their chief executive officer, and expect the chief executive to develop informal and formal succession plans for all key staff positions in the board. Conducting a search for a new director calls for a carefully considered, coordinated plan and it is wise to formulate a plan before a board is required to act by the pressure of the moment.

The price of making the wrong selection is high. The director must be matched with the board and the community. When the match is not good, everyone suffers and typically much time is wasted in managing difficult conflicts, leading to resignations, firings and expensive buyouts of contracts.

Principles and Procedures to consider when designing a Selection Process

Experience and best practice suggest that the following principles and procedures should be considered when designing a selection process:

  • The whole board must approvethe appointment of the director of education by formal resolution. Most boards appoint an ad hoc Search Committee that includes the chair (usually the spokesperson) and/or vice-chair and may include the whole board in some circumstances. The search committee is given clear direction by the board and develops a detailed plan of action to conduct the selection process.*
  • Consultation within the district is an important part of the process. The board should ensure that it gets a good sense of the strengths of the board as well as its challenges from various perspectives, including the senior team, employee groups, trustees, parent groupssuch as the Parent Involvement Committee and the broader community. This consultation process will help the board of trustees determine the qualities and skills necessary for the next five years in the board.
  • A clear description of the qualities and skills required by the board is developed and approved by the board as well as the key priorities the board wants the new director to accomplish (e.g. improvementsin specific student achievement priorities, strong fiscal management, improved board-director relations, improved communication with the community and staff, improved labour relations). This description becomes the foundation of the process.
  • Confidentiality, integrity and respect for all candidates are critical. The board must hold itself to high standards and continually stress and reinforcethe importance of confidentiality throughout all steps in order to preserve the integrity of the board, the candidates and the search process from start to successful completion.
  • Clear communication is essential. To this end, boards should expect communication to flow through the chair with regular updates to the board. The announcement of the appointment of the new director should be carefully coordinated with the new director and the communications department of the board.
  • As previously noted, the whole board must approve the appointment of the director by formal resolution
  • The employment contract framework and parameters are developed by the board (often with the assistance of the executive search consultant and/or board legal counsel) early in the process. Details of the contract with the successful candidate are worked out usually with the chair and vice-chair and board legal counsel acting on behalf of the board. It is important that any responsibilities delegated by the board to the search committee and its individual members, including the chair/vice-chair, be specific and clearly stated in advance; this includes clarity around the communication expected with the full board as a contract is developed with the successful candidate.

*Executive Search Firms

Boards are strongly advised to engage an executive search firm to advise and assist the board with the process. This allows the board to be fully engaged as governors and direction setters while a professional firm undertakes the planning and detailed work that constitutes an effective search for the very best director. Executive search firms assist the board by providing the time, staff resources and expertise to conduct a professional search, by recommending well tested, structured procedures to follow and by assisting the board to identify and describe its goals and preferences for the type of director it hopes to find. Specifically, an executive search firm will provide services which include developing a customized plan and timetable for the search, consultation with stakeholders, designing application and interview forms, brochures, advertising, outreach to potential candidates, screening and assessment of candidates and short listing, verification of resumes, detailed reference checks, follow up with candidates, interview format and questions for interviews, training regarding the interview process, assistance with the interviews, debriefing and contract consultation as requested. A search firm should also be able to guarantee to the board that it will not undertake any competing or conflicting searches which might have a negative impact on the ability to deliver the best possible candidates.

The best executive search firms have successful experience in the K-12 sector in Ontario, have outstanding credentials and references and excellent networks within Ontario and across the country to assist with the identification of potential suitable candidates.


School boards are accountable for their fiscal and operational performance as boards, and for the academic achievement and well-being of their students. In addition, Catholic school boards have as their mission supporting an educational system that provides a focus on the person and message of Christ through the curriculum and life in its schools.

School board trustees are responsible not only for the operational and pedagogical outcomes of Ontario’s schools but must also ensure that these expected outcomes are effectively communicated to parents and the community. Further, where academic expectations are not met, school boards must explain to their constituents, or local board supporters, what steps are being taken to improve achievement outcomes.

Legal Accountability

Under the Education Act, locally elected school boards are responsible for operating publicly funded schools within their jurisdiction. Legal accountability for board decisions applies to the board as a corporate entity rather than to individual trustees. In fact, the Act gives no individual authority to trustees and refers specifically to their responsibilities in Section 218.1. As members of the corporate board, trustees are legally accountable to the public for the collective decisions of the board and for the delivery and quality of educational services.

The Education Act stipulates that every school board shall:

  • promote student achievement and well-being
  • promote the prevention of bullying
  • promote a positive school climate
  • ensure effective stewardship of the board’s resources
  • deliver effective and appropriate education programs to its pupils
  • develop and maintain policies and organizational structures that:
    • promote the board’s goals and,
    • encourage pupils to pursue their educational goals;
  • monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of policies developed by the board in achieving the board’s goals and the efficiency of the implementation of those policies;
  • develop a multi-year plan aimed at achieving the board’s goals
  • annually review the multi-year plan with the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education; and
  • monitor and evaluate the performance of the board’s director of education, or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education, in meeting:
    • his or her duties under this Act or any policy, guideline or regulation made under this Act, including duties under the multi-year plan, and
    • any other duties assigned by the board.

Beyond these broad areas of accountability, the Education Act also spells out duties for school boards that include such obligations as ensuring effective operation of schools, setting the board’s budget, implementing the Ministry’s curriculum policies, and ensuring that appropriate staff are hired as required by schools. Boards will also make determinations about such matters as pupil transportation, school libraries, continuing education, and childcare facilities on school sites. Key sections of the Act that set out these duties are sections 170 and 171. Boards may pursue activities not explicitly addressed in the Act, but should seek a legal opinion before doing so.

In addition to their responsibilities under the Education Act, school boards must deal with the impact of many statutes administered by ministries other than the Ministry of Education. (See Chapter 6, Legal Responsibilities and Liabilities.)

Accountability for Strategic Planning

School boards must plan strategically for the educational, financial, and operational performance of the school system. This involves setting broad strategic directions that reflect the community’s expectations for high standards of student achievement and a focus on student well-being. The Education Act requires boards to report annually on their multi-year strategic plans. They often do so through the Director’s Annual Reports (DAR). Whatever form the report takes, it must be posted on the board’s website and set out: the board’s multi-year plan, including its multi-year strategic objectives; the progress the board has made against its strategic objectives in the previous school year; and actions the board is taking in those strategic priority areas where goals are not being met. The board’s multi-year strategic plan (MYSP) breaks down the strategic directions into specific year-by-year goals. The reporting processes that are part of the plan allow the board to assess its progress towards achieving the goals, review this annually with the director of education, make adjustments as necessary, and ensure, through its budget-setting processes that resources are appropriately allocated to align with the plan.

The Multi-Year Strategic Plan

Establishing and monitoring the implementation of the board’s Multi-Year Strategic Plan (MYSP), with a budget that supports it, is a very important legislated responsibility of the board of trustees. The Education Act requires boards to have a MYSP in place. The MYSP provides a compelling vision for the school district by establishing a small number of strategic directions for the board, with an emphasis on student achievement. The board of trustees is actively engaged in developing and confirming the strategic directions and in annually reviewing implementation of the plan.

A board’s MYSP is its “face” to the community. It informs constituents what the board intends to achieve, what its priorities are and how it plans to achieve them. It reflects the vision for the board including its overall purpose (mission statement), beliefs, strategic directions and it establishes goals for a minimum of three school years. The local practices, traditions and cultures of boards will inform its goal-setting process.

While final decisions relating to the MYSP are the responsibility of the board of trustees, the plan is developed through a partnership involving the board of trustees, the director of education (and staff) and the community. It may take several months to develop and should be the result of consultation. The public should have access to the board’s MYSP through the board’s website. To promote community engagement and enhance accountability many boards also provide a more “user friendly” version of the MYSP on the board website, as well as the full plan with detailed implementation and operations plans.

The MYSP and its accompanying implementation and operations plans must address:

  • student achievement and well-being
  • ensuring a safe and inclusive school environment and promoting anti-bullying initiatives
  • effective stewardship of the board’s resources
  • the delivery of effective and appropriate educational programs

In establishing its student achievement goals, boards should be mindful of the provincial targets of 75% of students achieving at the provincial standard in Grade 6 and an 83% graduation rate for secondary students. While the goals are set for the end of the three-year period, the MYSP should also include what progress the board expects to make toward the achievement of these goals at the end of each of the three years.

The director of education is responsible for implementing the MYSP and for developing the plan to implement the strategic directions. The director is also responsible for the variety of “operations” plans that are needed to run a complex school system effectively and efficiently. These flow from the strategic direction set through the MYSP. For example, the Board Improvement Plan for Student Achievement, an annual operational plan that forms part of a board’s literacy and numeracy strategy, sets out the steps that will be taken toward achieving the board’s multi-year strategic direction for student achievement. (See Chapter 9, Supporting Child and Student Learning and Well-being).

Directors are required to review the MYSP with the board each year. It is not, however, a “rolling” plan: in other words, the directionsand goals do not change significantly from year to year. Annual adjustments in implementation actions and the resources to support these actions may be required, but the directions and goals will remain relatively fixed until the end of the three years, when a new MYSP is established.

(The Trustee Professional Development Program for Boards offers a module that covers a recommended process and detailed requirements for the development of a MYSP. Skilled Facilitators are available through the appropriate school board association to assist boards in the development and review of the MYSP.)

Accountability for Student Achievement, Well-being and a Safe, Inclusive Environment

A school board must ensure that the provincial curriculum is implemented in its schools. As the representatives in their local jurisdiction, trustees consider the needs of their communities and ensure that programs and strategies are developed to address specific local needs. These can encompass programming for First Nation, Métis and Inuit students, for English Language Learners, for students requiring additional support, or areas such as early literacy and special education. In French language schools, programsand strategies will have a particular focus on protecting, enhancing, and transmitting the language and culture of the community. The board’s multi-year strategic plan must address curriculum implementation, student achievement and well-being and include goals for improvement in these areas.

Through the director of education, school boards are also responsible for ensuring that provincial test results and other student performance indicators are considered in promoting student achievement at the school and board levels, and that tools such as board and school improvement plans are in place, used effectively, and communicated to the public.

Boards typically post their multi-year strategic plan and Board Improvement Plan for Student Achievement (BIPSA) on their website.

Political Accountability

A school board is responsible for governing the school system in the best interests of all students in its jurisdiction and on behalf of the community it serves. As democratically elected officials, trustees are accountable to their constituents.

Individual trustees interpret “representing their community” in different ways. Some community members expect a trustee to be very active, others do not. Because Ontario’s communities are so diverse, the job of school trustee varies widely. What all trustees do have in common is serving the community as elected representatives while focusing on the primary task of acting as members of a board that makes policy decisions, oversees curriculum and program delivery and fulfils its responsibilities as an employer.

Trustees bring a range of skills, experience, knowledge, values, beliefs, and opinions to their role. Their background does not necessarily include teaching, administration, or any other aspect of education. This diversity ensures that board processes are democratic and contribute to good decision-making. The board is better able to balance the interests of the broader community and the interests of thoseinvolved in the delivery of education.

Advocacy Role of Trustees

Trustees act as education advocates at various levels. At the local level, they work on behalf of the community and must consider the unique needs of that community when deciding what position to take on an issue. Trustees encourage constituents to participate in the school system. This aspect of their work can involve familiarizing people with the procedures for bringing their views before the board, such as through public or written submissions. As advocates for excellence in education, trustees may also act on constituent complaints or requests and help to find a resolution by working with appropriate board staff, usually the director of education. Boards should have a clear process that trustees can follow when they receive requests or complaints from their constituents. In addition, Catholic school trustees have a clearly defined role as stewards and guardians of Catholic education.

The trustee’s role as an education advocate often extends beyond the boundaries of the district school board. In the broader public domain, trustees are education advocates throughout the province and work with the provincial government in the interest of publicly funded education. They may liaise with members of the provincial government, the school system, and with local organizations or individuals in the community.

Code of Conduct for Trustees

Boards recognize that the public trust placed in them as a collective body is honoured through determining and enforcing norms of acceptable behaviour. Having a code of conduct for school board members is an effective and essential governance practice which promotes public confidence and enhances the effectiveness of the board. Codes of conduct cover such matters as acting with integrity, guarding against conflict of interest, complying with legislation, maintaining confidentiality, respecting the decision-making authority of the board, and acting in a civil manner in meetings that is respectful of all members of the board and that maintains public confidence. The Education Act [s. 218.3] provides a mechanism for a board to enforce its code of conduct. (See Chapter 6, Legal Responsibilities and Liabilities)

A code of conduct is not intended to prevent individual trustees from expressing their opinions on issues under consideration by the board, nor is it intended to preventthe public from evaluating a board’s decision-making procedures. Like any school board policy, a code of conduct is developed in consultation with all board members. It is intended to provide a common understanding about how to conduct the work of the school board with appropriate authority and integrity and, thereby, promote public confidence.

Professional Development Opportunities

As education leaders in their community and as advocates for the value of publicly funded education, trustees need to engage in ongoing professional learning. They must be knowledgeable about the school system and stay informed about the societal and global trends as well as the legal developments that have an impact on student achievement and well-being and on the many aspects of governing a school board. The pace of change has increased dramatically in the first two decades of the twenty-first century and it is important for trustees to be aware of changes that could affect their role. A strong level of awareness will enhance the contribution they make to the work of the board.

There are many ways to keep up to date. Trustees can talk to qualified people or read education publications and periodicals or access relevant websites. Many boards have developed policies that provide for ongoing professional development for trustees and make funding available to support this. Trustees are strongly encouraged to participate in these and other professional development activities that allow them to grow, become more effective in their roles, and be well-informed decision makers.

A key source of professional development for trustees is through their provincial associations. In addition to timely reports and analyses of emerging issues and a rich array of website services, provincial associations offer conferences, symposia, online professional learning and training customized to meet the needs of school boards. (Appendices A to D provide specific information about each of the four school board associations.)

Through the site there is a Centre for Governance Excellence that offers boards a series of training modules that cover all aspects of school board governance. A further resource is the paper Strong Districts and Their Leaderships by Dr. Kenneth Leithwood available at