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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Governance

I hear people talking about the governance of Seattle Public Schools and saying that the District has a serious governance problem. I would agree with them. All of them say that the source of the governance problem lies in how School Board Directors become School Board Directors. This is, of course, absurd. That may strongly influence the persons in the positions and to whom they owe their alligience, but it will not impact governance one whit.

The District's governance problem is this: The Board has not been afforded the tools necessary to do their job.

I see a lot of confusion around the Board's job. Many of the people who give public testimony seem to think that the Board is the Complaint Department; they are not. Other folks seem to think that the Board writes the District's budget; they don't. The School Board is not supposed to get involved in the day-to-day administration and operations of the District. It is, after all, supposed to be a strictly part-time volunteer job.

State law gives the Board a set of jobs. These include reviewing and, as appropriate, approving all District expenditures (the warrant report), District hires (the personnel report), outside contracts, and the total dollar figures of the various funds - though not the way the money is allocated.

So far as I know, no one has any serious complaints about how the Board has fulfilled these duties. Yes, some may kvetch about Director Bass always voting "No" on the personnel report, but it always passes. And it is true that I, and others, have objected to the approval of capital projects that ALWAYS exceed their budgets. But this is not the governance crisis that people speak of.

In addition to these - and a few other - legal requirements, the Board is supposed to be a policy-making body. As such, they are supposed to determine, in broad strokes, how the District is supposed to function. They are not to concern themselves with the details of how those policies are implemented, but they do have an oversight responsibility to insure that the policies ARE implemented.

The problem is that the Board can WRITE policy but the Board cannot ENFORCE policy. Consequently, the Board cannot be said to have SET policy.

For example, let's say that the Board writes and approves a nutrition policy for schools. The Board must rely on the Superintendent to implement the policy. If the Superintendent does not implement the policy, there isn't much that the Board can do about it. First of all, there is a very real chance that the Board will never know whether the policy was implemented or not - not unless they go out to the schools and check, which is pretty unlikely. Secondly, if the Board does know that the policy hasn't been implemented, they can bring that fact to the Superintendent's attention and encourage him to follow through, but not much more.

Unless they are ready to fire him and conduct a national search for a replacement Superintendent over a failure to comply with policy, the Board doesn't have many tools for getting the Superintendent to implement their policies. They could, I suppose, write a less than favorable performance evaluation. Boo hoo. As a direct result of this grosteque hole in the governance structure, the Board is incapable of doing their primary job. Without the ability to enforce policy, they can't really set policy. If they can't set policy, they are restricted to their only other role: to sign the checks.

Of course, the Board's inability to enforce policy or effectively manage the Superintendent only matters if the Board and the Superintendent do not share a Vision for the District. Since the Board hires the Superintendent they would, of course, be sure to hire one who shares their Vision. In those cases when a Board inherits a Superintendent from a previous Board, we would expect the Superintendent to recognize the Board's authority and adopt their Vision.

The current governance crisis is a direct result of three fairly unusual circumstances: 1) a Board with a clear, strong Vision, 2) an aggressive Board that (to a greater extent than previous Boards) checks to see that their policies are followed and 3) a Superintendent who does not share the Board's Vision and feels no compulsion to follow it.

I suggest that the first two elements are not the source of the governance crisis. They are, in fact, strengths. It is the third element - and the third element alone - that has caused the so-called governance crisis. Fortunately, this "crisis" will resolve itself by August without any need to appoint an interim Superintendent (who also does not share the Board's Vision nor feels any need to follow it) and without any need to replace the Board or change the way the Board is chosen.

We can prevent future governance crises of this type in a couple ofways:

1) Develop some means, short of replacing the Superintendent, for the Board to enforce policy.

2) Switch the way that the Superintendent and the Board are chosen. Yes, appoint the Board, but elect the Superintendent. This way the person with the real authority will be accountable to the public. The Superintendent will then be charged with developing the Vision as well as implementing it and the Board will fade in importance to the administrative tasks of approving what is put before them. This is the State's model: the Superintendent of Public Instruction is elected and the state Board of Education is appointed.

Look at the CACIEE report. One of their first recommendations was for the Board to adopt a governance policy, such as the Carver model. The Carver model, however, is predicated on the Board's ability to hold the Superintendent accountable. Our School Boards lack that ability.

1 comment:

Melissa Westbrook said...

Good points, Charlie. I especially like your idea of flipping it and having the superintendent run (and be accountable) and appointing the Board.