Thursday, October 26, 2006

Redefine Roles for School Board and Superintendent

Maybe the biggest problem with the Seattle School Board is not who is on the Board, but instead how the role of the School Board is defined, including, of course, the relationship between the superintendent and the School Board.

A popular reaction to School Board dysfunction around the country is to turn to the Policy Governance model as defined by John Carver. In this model, the School Board defines the vision, providing clear policy direction, and then holds the Superintendent and district staff accountable for making it happen. The Mercer Island School Board received training in and adopted this model in 2004. Many other urban school districts around the country, including Austin, Texas, have adopted this model in recent years as well.

"A radical redesign of the function of school boards, Carver explains, would include (1) a focus on educational results rather than on the methods by which they were achieved, (2) newly defined relationships with the general public and parents, and (3) a commitment on the part of the board to speak with one voice rather than as a group of individuals with individual agendas."

While I like the quote from Carver above (especially the part I put in bold), I have some concerns about the appropriateness of the Policy Governance model for School Boards. The model was developed for private for-profit and non-profit organizations, on which the Board members are not public elected officials.

A different perspective on School Board governance models is provided by William Price, a former superintendent and current professor of Education, in his article Policy Governance Revisited. He addresses the specific issues raised by having elected School Board members, along with recent trends that have changed expectations of school superintendents.

"What seems clear is that in the search for the heroic leader who will single-handedly cure a troubled organization, governing boards are unwittingly changing the Board/CEO relationship... School boards (as well as some corporate boards) are, through their executive searches, seeking a CEO who will be expected to, among other things, forge a vision for the organization, translate that vision into a strategic plan and lead a campaign for increasing financial resources. Boards also seek candidates who will be expected to build coalitions in the community that resolve competing interests among the various stakeholders...In a Policy Governance model, many of these tasks would rest not with the CEO, but with the governing board."

"The argument over policy versus operations as it relates to school boards and superintendents is rooted in an outdated view of school districts as organizations and of the current nature of the superintendency. Many superintendents now seem less concerned with the frequent overlapping of roles and responsibilities between the board and the superintendent and more concerned that both parties at least agree on who is expected to do what task in a given situation...This is consistent with much of the past research on the importance of developing and nurturing a cooperative relationship between the superintendent and the board by a carefully choreographed negotiated system of the sharing of roles and responsibilities. Such an interactive relationship avoids getting into an unnecessary contest over roles that too often detracts from the real mission of the school district."

So before the hiring process for the new superintendent begins, and before the next round of School Board elections, we need to spend some time defining what the expectations of those roles are, and how the relationship between them will be defined, and redefined as necessary, over time.


http://www.asbj.com/governance/index.html - collection of links on School Governance by the American School Board Journal

School Governance - National School Boards Association

Using School Board Policy To Improve Student Achievement

More Boards Mulling 'Policy Governance'

Effective School Governance

New Patterns of School Governance


Anonymous said...

I think this speaks to a number of my continuing concerns.

When I read in the CACIEE report the suggestion that the Board adopt a governance model, such as the Carver one, I couldn't believe that the CACIEE couldn't see that the Board has no management tools. That is, the Board has no means for holding the Superintendent accountable. I have shared this concern at Board meetings a number of times. The Board can WRITE policy, but if the Board cannot ENFORCE policy, then the Board has not SET policy.

On top of this we must add the public's misperception of the Board's role, a misperception that the Board sometimes indulges. The Board is NOT the complaint department and the Public Testimony period of the Board Legislative Meeting is NOT the customer service hotline. The District does have a customer service department and does have a complaint process. The problem here is that Board members, like all elected officials, do "constituent services". Your congressional reporesentative may be a legislator, but they spend a lot of their time fixing conflicts with Social Security for voters in their districts. This doesn't work for the School Board because 1) The school board directors do not have staff people who can respond to and address these complaints. 2) The school board is specifically prohibited from getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the District and 3) the Customer Service department of the District is not an effective advocate for the Customers and 4) the District's complaint process is a sham. The Board can refer all of the complaints to Customer Service, but they would just see the complaints again next month with the added complaint that the customer service department and the complaint process are ineffective.

This speaks again the the District utter lack of any form of accountability whatsoever as well as the District's inability or unwillingness to respond to the needs of the public.

Finally, this speaks to the whole question of leadership, the kind we need, the kind we recognize, and where it can come from. If we are looking for the charismatic leader with a Vision and if we expect that to come from a single individual with a lot of authority or from a committee with a lot of authority. It simply cannot come from the Board of Seattle Public Schools because they simply do not have a lot of authority.

I agree with the CACIEE and with Beth that we desperately need some sort of governance model, but let's not get deluded into choosing one that presumes that the Board either has authority it does not have or presumes that the Board can hold anyone accountable.

Anonymous said...

Great piece - thanks for the research. Two comments -

1) Talk to CPPS about research on governance reform - I heard they were applying for a grant for that.

2) In Seattle, the issue IS "who" this board is, as well as how their role is defined. At least 4 of 7 don't know how to prepare for a meeting (much less run one), manage a process, inspire a team, or work as a unit. (With 2 from the City, you wonder if is this the caliber of people there?)

And heard the way they talk to the staff and each other? They have almost no sense of professional behavior or courtesy. Much less higher order skills like leveraging the media, the legislature, or the public.

There needs to be a turnover in Nov and follow with Mary Bass next time around.

Beth Bakeman said...

Who is up for re-election in November on the Board?

Anonymous said...

Up for re-election next year will be: Darlene Flynn, Irene Stewart, Brita Butler-Wall and Sally Soriano.

Michael DeBell, Cheryl Chow, and Mary Bass were elected last year.

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

Great points to raise (the blog & the comments). Given the opening in the superintendent position right now and given the strenghts/weaknesses currently in the district, I personally think we do need to hire a hero for superintendent. Whatever process model they adopt will work best if the superintendent is someone who understands vision and its role in leadership.

Beth Bakeman said...

From my iced tea lid comes this piece of wisdom about vision:

"Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare."

Charlie Mas said...

Would we be better served with an elected Superintendent and an appointed Board? It would mirror the statewide structure. The Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State is an elected position, and the members of the State Board of Education are appointed.

It would put the job of Vision and Leadership in the hands of the one person with real authority. This person would also have the public mandate and public accountability needed to lead. We'd be sure to have at least a moderately capable politician in the job.

The Board's oversight role could continue to be a volunteer job. The Board would no longer be called upon to serve as the complaint department, a job they could never do. Instead, as appointees, the Board would not feel any need to get involved beyond checking that the budgets balance and the District Policies are not violated (or at least not too egregiously).

People who don't want the Board involved in decision-making should take away the election that gives the Board members the mandate to get involved.

People who want the Superintendent to lead should give the Superintendent the public mandate needed to lead.

Roy Smith said...

If the school board were appointed, who would do the appointing?