This, however, can be a major mistake. As discussed in earlier blog entries, Board composition and the scope and behaviour of committees can have a huge impact on the life of a school. The same can be said for Board size.
To be honest, I have seen it all! I have worked with Boards whose membership numbered over fifty and have sat on a Board whose trustees could be counted on one hand. There is definitely not a "one size fits all" consensus on how large or small a board should be.
The issues with small Boards are pretty obvious. Too few people around the table usually presents three major shortcomings: a lack of breadth of viewpoint; great demands on each member's time; and, the possibility of a major turnover at any given time. Small Boards tend to be quite tight which can result in a single-minded view of governance and of the role of the Board that can easily go off of the rails in the case of a crisis. The workings of small Boards also tend to be rather opaque, leaving parents and staff with the feeling that a small clique is running the school.
Excessively large Boards can be equally problematic. It is almost impossible to engage members of the Board in the strategic decision-making process if they perceive themselves to just be a face in the crowd. Meetings of large Boards - which tend to be held infrequently for obvious logistical reasons - are usually either information sharing sessions by the administration, or town hall type discussions in which members air their views and complaints without any possibility of effective consensual decision-making. In actual fact, for virtually every overly large Board, there is usually an Executive Committee that actually makes most of the decisions, oversees the finances, and directs the Head. It is in reality the de facto Board. This is particularly true of some of the more traditional boarding schools whose Board meets once or twice per year, while the executive meets monthly.
So what is the magic number? Good governance practice would suggest that Board size should fall somewhere between 12 and 18 members. Many Boards will set a maximum of between 18 and 20, being sure to leave some vacancies to give them the flexibility to add promising new members and to work around those trustees who are beginning to disengage themselves from the Board. The typical term for governors is usually around 3 years with one renewal. Effective practice would see a about one third of the Board up for renewal or replacement every couple of years (kind of like the US Senate!). Any greater change than this (like the Boards that are all up for re-election each year) opens the Board up for hi-jacking by special interest groups. Any less of a turnover than this is a recipe for atrophy!
Constructing a Board is like cooking yourself a steak. You want it big enough to satisfy your needs, you want it to be not too rarified, and you need to constantly turn it over to avoid getting burned!