How Public Schools Boards Can Mitigate Risk Exposure

Contentious School Boards: How Public Schools Can Mitigate Risk Exposure

School boards set policies, goals and objectives for a public school district, making decisions about policy, budget and leadership. As part of an elected governmental body, school board members function as representatives of their constituents to provide governance that guides the day-to-day operations of the schools.

In their roles, school board members are expected to abide by ethics rules and a code of conduct, as well as state and federal laws. In return, depending on individual State laws and Board policy, the school district may provide indemnification for costs incurred by the board members in the execution of their role. In today’s political climate, many districts face increased tensions and potential risk exposure.

The risks come in many different forms, and mitigation can be tricky. In some cases, the situation is a simple misunderstanding by a board member who oversteps their role. For example, if a board member reaches out directly to a vendor to negotiate pricing on behalf of the district, despite clear rules that outline a formal process for proposals, they’ve committed an ethics violation. In many cases, this can be addressed through a review of the process and a reprimand of the member. However, the district may be responsible for the board member’s expenses as they navigate the ethics review and defend their actions.

More significant risk exposure comes from board members whose “rogue” actions draw lawsuits filed by students and their families. Risk exposure is also heightened when school boards enact policies or decide against implementing a policy determined by a higher governing body, such as the Board of Education or the state. These types of actions almost always result in litigation. The court can find the school district negligent if a lawsuit alleges the failure to implement a policy required by a governmental agency was the cause of the injury. This can result in punitive damages that often are not covered by the district’s liability insurance.

3 Ways to Limit School Board Risk

1. Define responsibilities and rules of conduct for board members.

The foundation of effective risk management starts with clearly defining the school board member’s role and responsibilities. Adopt a code of ethics that lets members know what’s expected and what is and isn’t within their scope. Example tenets within a school board code of conduct include:

  • Avoidance of conflict of interest
  • Refusal to surrender responsibilities to special interest or partisan political groups
  • Respect for privileged and confidential information
  • Avoidance of involvement in direct administration of the school operations, leaving this to the superintendent and the board’s administrative staff

Fundamental documents defining responsibilities and ethics standards should be updated and reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing awareness and compliance.

2. Conduct regular orientation and training for board members.

Treat school board members like other district employees by requiring regular training on relevant topics, including risk management. Creating a comprehensive orientation program for newly elected members ensures they understand the scope of their role. Orientation should include a detailed review of the board’s processes and procedures, along with what’s expected of each member, such as:

  • Preparing for and participating in meetings
  • Abiding by majority decisions
  • Following defined channels for proposing actions or changes

3. Review risk exposure and insurance coverage.

Conducting regular risk exposure assessments and reviews and having liability insurance protection in place are essential for effective risk management. The district’s risk manager/insurance broker should be educating the board’s administration about the different types of risk and how they can help limit risk exposure. Consulting with expert risk management advisors is also a best practice, providing added support for:

  • Reviewing liability insurance coverage and policy provisions
  • Sharing guidance and recommendations on issues as they arise
  • Keeping current on potential risk requirements and concerns

The public sector experts at CBIZ are a valuable resource to help you evaluate and address risk. Connect with a member of our team and gain access to more resources here.

This article includes input from Lee Nestel, President of CBIZ Insurances Services, Inc. and Mid-Atlantic Public Entity Practice Leader. Lee is responsible for resolving technical policy issues, navigating challenging policy language and providing savings through policy adjustments.


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School boards set policies, goals and objectives for a public school district, making decisions about policy, budget and leadership. As part of an elected governmental body, school board members function as representatives of their constituents to provide governance that guides the day-to-day operations of the schools.

Risk MitigationNot-for-Profit & EducationPublic SectorYes