School boards of trustees
Significant obligations and responsibilities
Every three years, state and state-integrated schools hold elections for parent and staff representatives to join the governing bodies for their schools – the board of trustees (BoT).
School trustees are, however, sometimes confused or unsure about their role, and their obligations and responsibilities. The BoT is not like the PTA committee that co-ordinates parent helpers, organises school events, fundraises, etc.
A BoT role is like that of a company director. Although a school is not a commercial business, it should have robust governance processes in place that align with those of a well-run commercial business.
Health and safety aspects
The BoT is responsible for the governance and management of the school. It has discretion to manage the school within the parameters of the laws of New Zealand.
Alongside this governance approach, the Education & Training Act 2020 (E&TA) sets out the BoT’s obligations under the health and safety workplace laws. The Ministry of Education advises that:
School boards and early learning organisations are considered a PCBU (Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking) and must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a work environment that is without health and safety risks.
(Ministry of Education website)
A BoT is the legal entity that is the PCBU. If there is a health and safety failure at a school, the BoT could potentially face prosecution by WorkSafe under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA).
The best possible policies, and rigid adherence to them, may still not prevent accidents or injuries from occurring. The potential always exists that actions may be taken that do not comply with the policies and issues that arise. In this situation, it would be fair to say that responsibility would fall on those responsible for those non-compliant actions if the obligations of the BOT are shown to have been fulfilled.
Even if the BoT delegates responsibility for these policies, it has over-arching responsibility for the school staff who are operating under those policies. The BoT must take an active role to ensure that any people under its control are safe, and that suitable guidelines are in place to identify and mitigate the risks being faced. Ultimately, it remains an obligation of the school and BoT to be responsible for their students’ safety.
Out of school activities or education outside the classroom (EOTC) should be managed and controlled by reference to the BoT-approved health and safety policies.
To be effective, the policies must have measurable risk assessment components. For example: what are the risks and how serious is each risk? What is the likelihood of students and accompanying adults being hurt? How can these risks be managed by the activity leader? Does the school’s policy have a tool for assessing risk and the seriousness of the risk?
When things go wrong on an EOTC trip and a participant is badly hurt, there will be investigations by the police and WorkSafe and, if someone dies, the coroner. It is
equally possible that, as the result of those investigations, charges could be laid if breaches have occurred.
Two recent cases have shown that even with a successful WorkSafe prosecution, the fines awarded have either been reduced to $0, or set at a notional figure and payment has not been sought.
Regarding personal liability of BoT members, both the E&TA and HSWA contain exclusions of personal liability for board members provided that any act or omission was carried in good faith with the performance, or intended performance, of the BoT.
Trustees must fully understand their role
The BoT role is not one to be considered lightly, although training and guidance is available so trustees fully understand their responsibilities. BoTs are full of amazing and dedicated people who are doing their best for their community. A crucial part of that role is ensuring the everyday safety of the students and employees at their school.
Trustees must be aware that with the role comes responsibility and accountability. BoTs must manage their duties accordingly and fulfil all legal requirements.
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