Guidelines for Staff Reports to the Board

Dec 5, 2014

by Bob Thompson
A bane of many boards is the process of hearing reports from district staff. Too often they are too long and too rambling. Generally department heads get one shot each year at the board and they tend to stretch out their “time in the spotlight”. But the board must remember that the only reason for them to receive a report is to improve board decision-making. Board time is too scarce and too valuable to be taken up by reports that are not helpful. In short, the board should receive a report because it brings them valuable information, not because someone thinks the board ought to have it.

But there is an easy “fix” to this problem. If the board will develop guidelines for reports and hold the superintendent responsible to see that his/her staff follow the guidelines, the reporting can go from drudgery to enlightening. If the board will take a few minutes to complete the attached worksheet, they can often dramatically improve the use of their time and the quality of the information they receive. But before beginning to complete the worksheet, keep in mind the following:

  • A board must be willing to say “no” to a report. Reports cost money to compile and take valuable time to read. When you calculate the salaries for the time to prepare a report, it is often an amazingly large sum. In fact, some boards are asking their superintendent to project the cost of a requested report before the board approves it. As a result the board is always aware of the cost. And, if a report is not worth what it is projected to cost, don’t approve it.
  • There is a big difference between “nice to know” and “need to know”. There a lot of things about a district that are nice to know, but it takes up valuable time to learn them and costs staff time to gather the information. Concentrate on what you need to know.
  • We generally recommend that any oral report to the board must first be written and included in the board packet along with an executive summary. Once when asked how long it took him to write a speech, Woodrow Wilson answered, “That depends. If I am to speak 10 minutes, I need a week for preparation. If 15 minutes, 3 days. If half hour, two days. If an hour, I am ready now.” What Wilson was saying is that it takes time and discipline to distill a speech down to its more important points. In the same way, requiring a written report forces the reporter to use some self-discipline in its preparation. And requiring an executive summary (never more than one page) forces the writer to distill the report down to its most salient points. An added benefit of requiring an executive summary is that a board member can quickly grasp the essence of the report, and then decide if he/she needs or wants to read the detailed report.
  • If you do decide to ask for a report, ask that it to be written so you can read it at your leisure. Never allow an oral report unless that is the only way you can get the information you need. An oral report takes up valuable board time.
  • If you do decide to hear an oral report, put a time limit on the speaker. Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available.” Reports tend to do the same. When there is no time limit there is no urgency for the speaker to be straightforward and succinct. Limit the speaker’s time to not more than five minutes. You can always ask clarifying questions to get more information.

In summary, reports to the board are essential for the board to stay informed. But before asking for a report the board should:

  1. Decide whether the information in the report is essential to board decision-making.
  2. Decide whether the information in the report will be worth the cost of compilation.
  3. Adopt guidelines for the reports, e.g. format, time limit or maximum length etc. We recommend that the board take a few minutes in a work session to develop these guidelines by answering the questions on the worksheet below. Then ask the superintendent to have his/her staff adhere to these guidelines when they are preparing reports to the board.