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For further assistance please contact Jim Luebbe at 800-422-4572 or by email at jluebbe@NASBonline.org
 
 

HOW THE SCHOOL BOARD GOVERNS BY POLICY

 

“Governing by policy” means the school board has adopted written policy that defines the work of the school board and of the superintendent and staff.  The policies that form the board’s work include board process policies, written agreements about how the board will do its work, and policies about the relationship between the board and the superintendent.  These board-superintendent relationship policies describe how the board agrees to communicate and work with the superintendent and staff. In the policies that form the superintendent and staff work, the school board describes the results it expects and the constraints it imposes on the use of executive or staff authority in pursuit of those results.  Then the superintendent is free to pursue those results through any means that fall within “a reasonable interpretation” of the board’s policies.

While many school boards manage to establish such policies to provide direction to the superintendent, their efforts to “govern by policy” in this area often collapse when exceptions to their policies arise or when someone questions a decision of the superintendent or staff.  Placed under pressure, a board that is not truly committed to its governance philosophy will typically shift its focus from policy to the issue at hand and literally take the decision away from the superintendent and staff.  Such a board is not governing by policy, for its staff knows that board policy does not tell the whole story and lives in fear of being second-guessed.

A board that truly “governs by policy” remains focused on policy at all times.  Every issue that arises is examined as a policy matter rather than as an isolated problem for the board to solve.   When a decision by the superintendent or staff is challenged, the board first asks itself: “Did the decision or action reflect a reasonable interpretation of our policy?”

The board is obligated to support the superintendent if the decision or action reflected a reasonable interpretation of board policy.  But the board might opt to make the policy clearer or narrower to reduce the range of options available to the superintendent in the future.

On the other hand, if the challenged decision or action did not appear to be a reasonable interpretation of board policy, then the board has a policy violation on its hands to be dealt with in whatever manner the board deems appropriate.

In either case, the board focus remains on continuously improving its policies, not on making ad hoc decisions or rehashing decisions already made by the superintendent or staff.

 

Addressing Basic Responsibilities

 

As the corporate entity charged by law with governing a school district, each School Board sits in trust for its entire community. The obligation to govern effectively imposes several duties on the Board that can only be accomplished through the use of policy:

  • The Board clarifies the district purpose.  It continually defines, re-defines and articulates district ends to answer the recurring question of who gets what benefits for how much.
  • The Board delegates authority to the Superintendent to manage the district and provide leadership for the staff.  Such authority is communicated through written policies that designate Board ends and define operating limits.
  • The Board monitors performance to ensure progress toward district ends and compliance with written Board policies.
  • The Board takes responsibility for itself, collectively and individually, as it oversees its own activity and behavior.  Board deliberations and actions are limited to Board work, not staff work.
 

Why Does This Have To Be Done Through Policy?

 

The local board of education, as it performs its functions and discharges its responsibilities, operates within a framework established by local board policy and by state and federal law.

An important principle in performing any board function is that of operating as a unit. A school board is legally a single, united body. School board policies and actions are official and legally binding only when approved in an official meeting of the board and written in the minutes.

Nebraska law, like that of other states, confers no authority on individual board members, except that which can be exercised in an official board meeting.  A board member, except during an official meeting, has no more power over school matters than any other citizen in the community.

Yet the board, when operating as a cohesive unit, has power and authority over a community's most important resource-its children.  With that authority comes responsibility and accountability to see that the adults of tomorrow prepare for the future today. 

School boards are finding that the general public has never before been so interested or involved in school board matters.  While this trend has many positive aspects concerning the quality and enthusiasm about education, it also places school board members under intense scrutiny and makes their jobs more sensitive, especially when a controversial issue is involved.

The basic rule for dealing with the public is to be kind and considerate, but also firm and understanding.  The public should not be allowed to dictate board policy and neither should the board ignore problems under the guise of policy.

Because policies are an expression of the goals of the district, they should reflect the expectations of the community.  Stating clearly what the direction of the school district should be and then defining the specific areas for improvement are tasks that require skilled board members and willing administrators.

 

Maintaining Authority Through Policy

 
Good boardsmanship holds true to the principle that the board must be in charge and must always get what it wants.  Written policy increases the likelihood of the board getting what it wants.
 
If a board spends most of its time debating such things as how the roof of a school will be repaired, or whether to spend $35 to send a teacher to a workshop, it is plagued with the illness of administrative trivia.  If there were a physician who specialized in school board service, he would surely prescribe policy making as the cure.  These routine decisions could be handled by the superintendent and his or her staff if the board had adopted policies on "School Maintenance" and "Workshops and Conferences for Staff" to provide guidance for administrative action.  When a board and its chief administrator are confused about roles and authority, or are plagued with misunderstandings, board policy is a likely remedy.  It serves to clarify board and superintendent functions.  Ambiguity, confusion, and trouble are avoided when policies are adopted and published.  Clearly written policies that reflect thorough research, sound judgment and careful planning reduce the accusations of uninformed critics.  Nebraska statutes allow the board to make all necessary rules and regulations for the government and conduct of the public schools, but the real reservoir of power lies in the board’s policies.
 
Each policy is a guideline for action by the administration, staff and the board itself.  Well written policies identify what is wanted, why it is wanted, how much is wanted, and who is responsible.  Each policy should reflect the consensus of the board after much review and debate.
 
Surprisingly, however, some boards rely on case-by-case approaches to solve their problems.  This ensures that they will face many more problems and have more difficulty justifying decisions than boards that establish policies well in advance of anticipated problems.  A board that lacks written policies will be accused of practicing favoritism because the decision it makes for a well liked person may be different from the one it makes for a similar request by an average citizen, student or employee.
 
Failure to develop policies leaves interpretation open to the memories of board members, administrators and other personnel.  A board that neglects its policy manual is essentially giving up control of the schools.  If there is no policy, the superintendent's judgment determines the course of action without board guidance.
 
If the board wants to maintain control, it must become the policy-maker.  As policy-maker, it will need to develop skills in decision making, communications, organizational structure, personnel relations, leadership and public relations.  The board will need to know how to manage time, conduct effective board meetings, communicate with the community, support evaluation procedures and support appropriate board/superintendent relations.  In other words, the board needs to be comprised of knowledgeable and skillful board members.  However, few board members are skilled in all areas of board operation.  The best way to compensate for this is to have sound, written policies to provide continuity and stability even though board members, staff and the superintendent may change.
 
Developing policies before they are needed allows the board to debate and determine the merits of an issue without the pressure of personal application, heightened emotions and time limits.  Over the long term, a board with well-written policies will have better educational programs and staff accountability.  Also, policies prevent the board from debating the same issues over and over, and they make the board’s wishes clear to all administrators, students and citizens.
 
To remain useful and legal, policies must be reviewed every year.  Boards should be committed to ensuring that their policies reflect the newest laws and regulations or they may eventually face the consequences in court.  Trying to defend in court a decision that was made based on a policy later found to be in violation of current law could be disastrous.
 
A board with sound, written policies that are being followed has an advantage over any problems that may arise and a solid defense against any challenges to its authority.  A board with poorly written or no policies will eventually encounter many preventable problems and is taking a needless risk with its authority.
 
The local board of education, as it performs its functions and discharges its responsibilities, operates within a framework established by state and federal law.  However, school boards must accept the prime responsibility for education and the accountability which accompanies this responsibility.  Boards exercise their statutory responsibility to manage and control the school system through policy.
 
 

Why Does A School Board Need A Complete Set Of Policies?

 
A school board is an elected public body with authority to set direction for the school system.  Just as laws that are established by the legislature must be in writing, so should board policies be in writing.  Increasingly, the legislature, the state board of education, and the courts are demanding written statements of policy.
 
When doubts arise regarding time spent developing or revising policy, consider the public's expectations of their school board.  The public expects students to learn within a safe, friendly and challenging learning environment under the tutelage of proficient and caring teachers.  The public holds the school board accountable for the manner in which the schools are governed and managed and for the results achieved.  Well-defined, clear policies can serve as the basis for accountability and evaluation used to govern and improve the schools.
 
  1. Policies foster stability and continuity.  Board members come and go; staff people leave, retire, or are separated.  But policy endures.  A policy book, containing policies and regulations, permits smooth transitions when changes take place.  Additionally, fair, consistent and uniform treatment of all students, parents, community members, and employees is ensured because ambiguity, confusion and trouble are avoided when policies are adopted, published and disseminated.  Clearly written policies reflecting research, sound judgment and careful planning help prevent maiming accusations of uninformed critics.  The public tends to trust in the consistency of written, established policy.
  2. Policies communicate the board's goals, objectives, priorities and acceptable practices to all and keep people informed about the board's position on major educational operational problems.  An effective public relations tool, it conveys the board's basic philosophy and position on specific issues.  When any public body operates in the open area there can be no charges of secrecy.
  3. Policies and regulations clarify board/superintendent relations.  When the board gives the school superintendent the kind of broad directions he or she needs, the superintendent can administer the school system and get jobs done.
  4. Policies and regulations save time and effort for the superintendent.  When problems come up - the use of school buildings by private groups, criticism against textbooks - the superintendent does not have to go to the board each time for a decision.  He can take care of the matter on the basis of the board's standing statements.
  5. Policies save time and effort for the board.  When policy and regulations exist, there need not be long board discussion on details of administration-that's the superintendent’s job.  There need not be a rerun of arguments on a problem which as been settled before.  There need not be tedious arguments late into the night.  “We enacted a policy on that question last year,” is all that needs to be said to end the discussion and to move on to the next order of business.
  6. Policies facilitate the process of evaluating board and administrative practices.  They provide a sound basis for appraisal and accountability. Policies establish direction, telling what the board wants and why.  They set goals, assign authority and establish controls, all essential elements in considering accountability.
  7. Policies help to ensure that the board functions appropriately and legally as an agency of government.  That is, needs are assessed by the staff and community with appropriate goals set for departments.  Reliable measures are established for assessing programs and evaluative criteria and reports support what the school system aspires to achieve.
  8. Policies are required by law.  Nebraska law requires that each local board of education adopt written policies and that board policies be compiled and published.  Establishing a legal record, these policies provide the legal basis for most actions and help to ensure that board and administrative decisions comply with state and federal law and regulations and judicial decisions.  The law further requires that some policies must be updated annually.  
 

What is Policy?

 
Policies are guidelines adopted by the board to chart a course of action.  They tell what the board wants and may include why and how much. They should be broad enough to admit discretionary action by the administration in meeting day-to-day problems and yet specific enough to give clear guidance.  They should, when appropriate, be based upon established legal precedent or rules.
 

 

Policy or Administrative Procedure?

 
Following are clues to help distinguish between matters which should be handled by policy and those which could better be handled through administrative procedure.
 
Clues to Policy Status
  • Is the statement one of goals, purposes, and aspirations?
  • Does the statement concern how the board, itself, operates?
  • Does the board assign responsibility or authority in the statement to the superintendent?
  • Does the statement establish the board's position on a topic of concern?
  • Does the statement set forth a function that the board reserves to itself?
  • Would only the board have authority to make such a statement?
  • Generally speaking, does the statement answer the questions what and why, rather than how?
 
Clues to Administrative Procedure Status
  • Does the statement set forth mechanics for implementing goals?
  • Does the statement list many specific do's and don'ts?
  • Does the statement list required step-by-step procedures?
  • Does the statement contain a great deal of detail?
  • Generally speaking, does the statement answer the question how rather than what and why?
 
By developing policy, the board defines parameters for those who deal with a given issue.  For example, the board develops a yearly budget for the district.  During the year the board regularly refers to the budget which sets the fiscal limits for what can or cannot be done.  Policy is much the same.  The board develops policy as a ready reference to make good decisions about issues that arise.  Policies should be working documents.  Like the budget, policy should provide a plan for what may and may not be done, spelled out and available to all.
 
 

What Policy Is Not:

 
Policy is not detailed directions for operating a school system or running a particular program. How board policy is to be implemented - by whom, with what, when and where - is the essence of administrative management.  Administrative procedures are detailed directions developed by the administration to put policy into practice.  They tell how, by whom, where and when things are to be done.
 
Policies are not the same as board decisions.  A “board” decides to adopt a budget, hire a school principal or allow a religious group to use the school auditorium.  These decisions are simply a board’s actions in carrying out its responsibilities. If the board, however, decides to establish new criteria for the hiring of school principals or for the use of school facilities, it is making policies that will affect future decisions.
 
A policy is not a job description.  Although job descriptions are important tools for the management of the schools, they are not board policy.  Job descriptions should be developed by the administration in line with board policy and filed in a separate manual.
 
Just as laws must be in writing, the policies of a school board must be in writing.  Increasingly, state legislatures and the public are demanding it, and courts are taking boards to task when they attempt to enforce measures that have not been written down and made known.
 
Sound, written policies have many advantages.  Yet some board members continue to view them as a necessary evil, or long for the days when the district's entire policy manual could be summed up in a few short pages.  But this approach no longer works because boards and superintendents are faced daily with decisions which affect the legal and civil rights of staff members, students and parents.  Unless boards develop written policies to guide these decisions, they will probably find themselves involved in long, embarrassing legal and due process proceedings.
 
 

Policies Do The Following:

  • Establish a legal record
  • Provide for fair, reasonable, consistent and impersonal treatment of issues
  • Provide a procedure in advance for handling problems as they arise, before emotions get involved
  • Save time and effort by eliminating the need to make a new decision each time a recurring situation arises
  • Eliminate or sharply reduce, crisis-to-crisis decision making
  • Tend to reduce pressures of special interest groups
  • Aid boards in appraising the school system’s educational services
  • Aid in the orientation of new board and staff members
  • Help keep the community, as well as the staff, informed of board philosophy and action
  • Enhance school-community relations as the public and the school work together to develop policies of mutual interest
  • Improve staff morale through staff involvement in policy development
  • Improve board/superintendent/staff relationships because all are partners in policy development and implementation
  • Provide a means for staff members to assess their individual roles within the framework of the district's overall operation
  • Show everyone that the board is running a business-like operation
  • Give credence to board action, as people tend to respect what is in writing even though they may not agree
  • Foster stability and continuity
 

Policy Development

 
Setting constructive policy is a hallmark of school board effectiveness and a crucial component of your school system’s success.  A school board’s duty is to conduct the public’s business in the realm of education.  In some school districts, the loss of public confidence in the schools is due in part to the board’s inability to carry out that fundamental responsibility.  Such dysfunction is often attributed to poor leadership, poor management, role confusion, lack of vision, special-interest politics, or incompatible personalities.  But these are merely symptoms of a deeper problem: the lack of an effective systematic mechanism for policy development.
 
Effective boards, on the other hand, are farsighted, looking at issues in terms of the long run. Yes, it is important to pay today’s bills and put out today’s fires, but paying bills and putting out fires is the responsibility of management not the board.  Progress requires moving toward goals, using yesterday’s and today’s issues as the historical context and operational perspective for decision making.
 
Policy development is a process of decision-making and shaping of ideas into written guidelines. The basic process of developing policies begins when the board is faced with an issue or problem that requires a long-term solution.
 
A problem requiring a written answer in policy can be of great educational importance, such as parental rights to determine curriculum or a demand from a citizens’ group for stronger discipline.  In many cases, the problem may seem to be fairly insignificant but has the potential to be controversial if handled improperly.  This can include a political party’s request to use the school auditorium for a fund-raiser or question about the procedure for calling a board meeting.
 
These topics and others should be identified beforehand by the board and handled through written policy in order to avoid controversy and challenges to the board's authority.  An effective board must always be alert for problems that might require policy decisions.
 
Policy at its best emerges when the school board anticipates and solves problems before they occur.  Unfortunately, all too often, policy begins with a reaction to an immediate problem - a controversial speaker, the use of a school building, sex education, employee negotiations or student discipline.
 

Create A Process For Monitoring School Board Policies

 
Begin with an up-to-date policy manual.  If it’s been some time since the board has articulated a mission statement for the district, set a vision, and established goals designed to move the district toward that vision, that task should be undertaken before establishing a process to monitor “ends” policies.  However, by keeping their monitoring responsibility in mind, the board may be encouraged to develop “ends” statements that are more measurable, thus easier to monitor.
 
If there’s some question as to how up-to-date the remainder of your district manual is, have it reviewed by an organization, such as your state school board association's policy department, a law firm, or other group that offers that service.  This type of service can help your district check the policy manual for legal compliance.
 

Monitoring Core Governance Policies

 

Core governance policies describe board processes and operations, define the board/superintendent relationship, and state the district’s “ends,” its mission, vision, and goals.

To monitor board processes and operations, the board should, at least annually, evaluate its own performance.  The question to ask is, “are we operating as our policies require?” If the answer is "yes" the discussion needs to go no further.  If the answer is “no” then the next question is — Why not?  If the board's operating procedure doesn't follow policy, either the procedure or the policy must be revised.

Monitoring the board/superintendent relationship involves more than policy monitoring.  Also involved are the superintendent’s contract, his or her performance in moving the district in the direction indicated in the “ends” policies, and the district's compliance with Administrative Regulations. The board should also look to its own behavior when monitoring this area.  Is the board complying with policy statements that describe the relationship between the board and superintendent?

To monitor the district’s “ends” policies, the board must ask and answer three questions:

  1. How will we know whether or not the district is complying with policy?  In other words, what indicators should we look for?
  2. What information that we are currently receiving indicates progress toward “ends”?
  3. What more do we need, if anything?  For this process to be effective, your responses to these questions must be written down and clearly communicated to the superintendent.  If expectations are clearly spelled out in the “ends” policies themselves, monitoring will be much easier to accomplish.
 

Monitoring Administrative Regulations

 
Administrative Regulations deal, not with governance, but with the day-to-day operations of the district and are the venue of the superintendent. These policies should be divided into broad topic areas. Most district policy manuals are divided into sections by topic area, e.g., School District Organization, School Board, Administration, Support Services, Personnel, Instruction, Students, and Community Relations, or something similar, so this task may already have been accomplished.
 


Develop Compliance Indicators and write them down.

 

About each broad section, ask the question “What information or assurance would we need to feel confident that the district is in compliance with the policies in this section and that the policies are in alignment with our "ends" policies?”  Take into consideration information that the board already receives, such as audit reports, student discipline reports, reports on student dropout rates, yearly budgets, school report cards, standardized test score results, etc. Always keep in mind the cost in staff time that information gathering will require and temper your requests for information with an eye toward cost effectiveness and staff workloads.

For each broad topic area, put in writing exactly what the board is going to require from staff in the way of assurance that the district is in compliance with board policies. For some districts, or in some policy areas, this may be as little as certification by the superintendent that the district is in compliance. For other districts, or in more sensitive topic areas, this may require hard data.

 

Establish a yearly agenda calendar.

 

The calendar should include a schedule for monitoring Core Governance Policies and each broad Administrative Regulations topic area, as well as other governance activities.  Legally mandated activities may be included as well.  Once this process is completed, each policy topic area will be reviewed and monitored at least once each year.  Beyond that, individual policies may be updated on an as needed basis as changes occur in legal requirements and local conditions.

 

Monitor your policies. 

 

Each year, as the separate policy areas come up on the yearly agenda calendar, the staff will have the required information and/or assurances available that the board has required for monitoring. This information or assurance will be included in the board packet.  Time devoted during the board meeting should be minimal.  If, after reading the information presented by the staff, a board member has questions, he or she should call the superintendent for clarification.  If there is something that should be discussed in the meeting, it should be added to the agenda.

 

Update your policies.

 

Policies should be updated throughout the year as required by changes in law and local conditions: however, it may be necessary to update policies during the monitoring process as well.  In gathering information for monitoring, the staff may realize that a policy needs attention. During the monitoring process would be the appropriate time to recommend a change.

 

Use your policies.

 

How often, when called upon to make a decision at a board meeting, does your board refer to its policy manual?  Any time a decision is required of the board, the first question asked should be, “What does our policy say?”  That’s not to say that there should be a policy there that addresses every thing that could possibly happen in your district.  That would be impossible, but there should be a broad policy statement there, maybe in a mission or goals statement, maybe in a legally mandated policy, that speaks to whatever situation the board is facing. Constant reference to and use of your board policy manual is the surest guarantee that it will stay up to date and relevant to your district.

 

The True Test of Good Policies

 

Effective policies affect the practices of staff.  The emphasis is always on the practical application of the policy under study, not some unrealistic ideal.  In other words, how will administrators, teachers, and other support personnel put the policy into practice in the school district?  Occasionally, a policy that seems perfectly reasonable turns out to be impractical to implement.  A policy that calls for considerable amounts of record keeping and reporting, for example, might impose an untenable burden on school employees.  This criterion serves another purpose as well, and that’s to make sure the superintendent and other administrators who are charged with the sometimes arduous task of implementation and enforcement have a valid interpretation of the policy.  Additionally, policies which are consistent with best management practices can point your board in productive directions and keep you from making mistakes.  Similarly, keeping abreast of recent changes in education will help your board identify any policies that are obsolete or are no longer appropriate due to adoption of new programs.  The main concern is making sure that policy accomplishes results in the best way possible.

 
 
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