“The Board” conjures different things for different people. Vision. Work. Power. Responsibility. Philanthropy. These collections of people who care about and for an organization work tirelessly to further its goals—for profit, for social good, for children. Wildwood School’s Board of Trustees is focused on the latter, of course. One could argue—and I would—that our Board is focused on the last two, in fact, considering Wildwood School’s mission:
Wildwood School cultivates reflective scholars, bold innovators and compassionate leaders equipped with the skills, ethics and inspiration to transform their world.
Our school’s Board serves the future—or, perhaps better put, holds the school in trust for the future—in deliberate, celebratory, earnest, and generous ways. Most Trustees in independent schools love the schools they serve. Our Trustees take it to a whole new level, which is why I was so pleased when our WWPO leadership invited Assistant Head of School Melinda Tsapatsaris and me to put together a panel of current Trustees to “demystify” our Board. I was so grateful to our representative group for investing yet another morning at Wildwood, and I want to capture it for those who couldn’t be present.
Landis and Board members Marc Frankel, Board Chair Lisa Flashner, Ashley Kramer, Lyle Poncher, and Andrew Solmssen at the WWPO Spring Summit.
The WWPO Spring Summit on March 9 included a group of five Board members and myself answering questions posed by one of our own, Dr. Marc Frankel, a consultant to independent schools and universities around the world. Our students—current and future—are lucky to have Marc’s expertise serving their school, as evidenced by his nimble facilitation of the panel and the depth and breadth of perspective he shared with those present.
Marc began the discussion by reflecting on the difference between public and independent school boards, noting that independent school boards focus on the fiduciary, strategic, and generative nature of governance. They don’t involve themselves in the day-to-day, like approving book lists and such. Like ours, the best independent school boards structure their work and align their focus to ensure that the school is healthy and thriving in the future.
Together with 25 year Trustee Lyle Poncher (parent of Amy, ’97, and Zach, ’11), Marc outlined the Board’s responsibility to identify strategic priorities, appoint the head of school, lead fundraising efforts, and structure the school’s annual budget and multi-year financial planning so that everything is in place for a healthy, stable, and—in Wildwood’s case, especially—dynamic school that is continually focused on innovation, best practice, and above all excellence. As Lyle noted, “We are not involved in curriculum. Although the head and his colleagues might consult with us, our job isn’t to decide if we should be teaching Portuguese.”
Andrew Solmssen (Jack and Ridley, ’24) took the question about how Trustees are selected and what is expected of them. Prospective and new Trustees go through a thorough vetting process, and a multi-stage orientation that begins in the spring before their service begins and carries through their first year and beyond. Without going into too much detail, Andrew noted that most Trustees are identified from the ranks of current and past parents who display a particularly pronounced commitment to the school, a clear desire to see it flourish, and a recognition that their service is future-focused. Board members are expected to make Wildwood School a top philanthropic priority. Although there is no requirement for giving, Andrew explained that roughly two-thirds of our Trustees make annual gifts at the highest leadership levels.
Although not a representative body, our Board include members who have children in elementary, middle, and upper school. A critical mass of Trustees are parents of alumni. Some have children who graduated a decade ago, yet remain committed—in their service and in their philanthropy—to ensuring that Wildwood School stays true to its mission and values with regard to educating children and serving families. The Board’s Committee on Trustees works collaboratively to identify potential future Trustees who bring specific skills, professional expertise, and a willingness to work on behalf of the school.
Continuing to explore the nature of the Board’s makeup, Ashley Kramer (Katie, ’19, and Ella, ’22) spoke about the importance of gender, race, age, and—very important to the functioning of a Board—skills and professional affiliations. On our Board are hedge fund managers, physicians, entertainment industry professionals, consultants, COOs, educators, technology leaders, lawyers, and others.
Much of the work of the Board is done in committee. Standing committees of the Board include: Finance, Advancement, Investment, Audit, Committee on Trustees, and the Executive Committee of the Board. In any given year, a task force or two is operating to explore topics over a more limited time frame. Task forces range from diversity to marketing, and HR related topics to flexible tuition policies. Task forces and some Board committees include non-Trustees, and all have administrative representation.
As Lyle Poncher described it, Wildwood School’s Board has evolved over the course of the two-plus decades he’s been involved. Operating more like a parent co-op early on, he described the early Board as “well meaning, but inefficient,” and noted that there wasn’t a clear separation between the work of the Board and the work of the head and the professional staff.
In describing a typical Board meeting, I explained that each Board meeting—five “regular” meetings and one full-day retreat, annually—generally includes one meaty strategic or generative discussion. It could involve anything from the Board helping my colleagues and me consider the ramifications of a significant program shift we’re considering (our Board guided my colleagues’ and my thinking with regard to the specifics of the Institute Model introduced in upper school last year), or a strategic discussion related to the logistics of funding programmatic enhancements (our Board invested considerable time discussing the competing priorities of funding financial aid, faculty salaries, and building endowment a few years ago). Board Chair Lisa Flashner (Jake, ’17, and Zac, ’20) and other Board leaders work diligently to ensure that Board meetings are focused on the 5, 10, and 15 year future, making the best use of the energies and vision of the creative, smart, committed group of people who serve the school.
WWPO, of course, is another key way that parents serve the school and its students, and many current and past Trustees have been involved in the work of WWPO before, and even during, their Board service. WWPO’s Board Liaison—Diana Stephenson (Molly, ’20 and Jenny, ‘23) is in her first year of service—attends all regular sessions of the Board, but has no vote. Although several of my most senior administrative colleagues are usually present for Board meetings, Diana and I are the two people present for all Board meetings who are specifically charged with keeping in mind how Board decisions might affect the here-and-now with students, parents, and faculty and staff.
Talking about some areas of current Board focus, Andrew Solmssen noted that the Board’s strategic plan, approved almost two years ago, serves as the primary road map for all Board and administrative work at any given time. Our current plan includes a focus on developing the long-term three-campus facilities plan, approved by the Board in January 2015; fostering a diverse community; and ensuring that the school benefits from the healthy funding that ensures positive progress with regard to important initiatives around topics like faculty salaries, flexible tuition, and program development.
Lisa Flashner closed the morning elaborating on Andrew’s reference to the Board’s fifteen year three-campus plan. As Lisa announced at the spring 2015 State of School, the Board had, earlier that year, put a stake in the ground by committing to the school’s property acquisition at 11800 Olympic Boulevard as one of two Wildwood campuses to be developed in the neighborhood. Our current middle and upper school site, 11811 Olympic Boulevard, will continue to function as our middle and upper school campus for the interim, but it—or a different site—will provide a companion property for 11800, while the current elementary campus continues to serve the program needs there.
With good questions, good will, and not just a few laughs, the morning’s program came to a close after about an hour and a half. Strolling out with some of those who were present, I was happy to see that the work of the Board had, indeed, been “demystified” and that I’d been joined by others in my appreciation for all that our Board does. The five Trustees who were present represented the greater body of 20 exceptionally well.
Head of School