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Use the Calm To Weather the Storm

By Net Assets posted 04-23-2019 07:50 AM

storm clouds over field

Risk Management |

How well a school handles a crisis may depend on six factors, including board relations, dedicated committees and defined roles.

Crises at independent schools occur without warning, but you can plan for how the school will work through them. “There’s a before, during and after to any crisis,” said David Wolowitz, director and co-chair of the education law group at McLane Middleton law firm. While it’s important to have a framework to deal with each of those stages, schools should focus primarily on the time before an emergency occurs, as that will set the stage for subsequent phases, explained Wolowitz in a recent NBOA webinar.

Successfully navigating a crisis depends on several factors are best addressed well in advance:

  • Strong collaboration. The board and administration need to be able to work together during a crisis. “The greater the crisis, the greater the stressors on that relationship, and advanced planning is absolutely critical,” Wolowitz said.
  • Decision making. Determine what kinds of decisions will require board input and which ones don’t, and have an agreement on that information. “Once that’s done, set up a structure that allows for meaningful and rapid communication,” Wolowitz said.
  • Dedicated committees. Create a special subcommittee or group for emergencies, particularly if you have a large board, said Dale Smith, head of school at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, who also spoke on the webinar. Set up teams to focus on different areas — legal or administrative, for example, depending on members’ areas of expertise. Smith suggested a crisis administration team include the head of school, CFO, director of communications, an assistant head, a division head, a consultant with experience in crisis management and legal counsel. Select these people before a crisis occurs, Wolowitz stressed.
  • Defined roles. Board members and administrators need to understand their roles. Wolowitz clarified that the board’s role is governance and the administration’s role is management. Discuss this during board onboarding, and at least or once a year as a refresher, Wolowitz said. Define “the limits of their duty of care, and the focus of their duty of care,” which Wolowitz outlined as “protecting the organization’s assets as well as the safety and welfare of the people, particularly the students within the organization.”
  • Board training. Do tabletop exercises, in which participants discuss how they would respond to hypothetical situations. Wolowitz suggested avoiding scenarios that are likely to cause high emotion. “I tend to focus more on catastrophes that have to do with weather rather than with sexual assault.”
  • Guiding principles. What are your school’s guiding principles that will help the board make difficult decisions? “You don’t want the board trying to figure this out during a crisis — and possibly disagreeing [about it],” Wolowitz pointed out. Smith suggested that schools use their core values as guiding principles, as they do at Newman. “They won’t give you an answer, but they’ll give you a way forward,” he said.

For more on preparing the board for a school crisis, visit the webinar archive.



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