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Friday, August 10, 2012

What is the Policy Writing Process?

As the day nears when the Board will vote on Policy 2200, Equitable Access to Programs and Services, I have to wonder about the policy writing process. I have to wonder because I don't understand how such a poorly conceived policy could be written in the first place or how such a badly written policy could advance so far without major re-writing. Who is in control of the policy writing and what is the process by which policies are formed, drafted, amended, and approved?

I presumed, perhaps incorrectly, that the language of the policies are drafted by staff, but that the contents of the policies come from the Board. So when the draft version of Policy 2200, for example, specifically exempts a number of programs from the equitable access policy and makes their creation and location a site-based decision outside the superintendent's authority, I have to believe that a Board member either directed or guided the staff to write that exemption into the policy. When the policy drops the requirement for transparency in program placement decisions, I have to believe that it does so because a Board member guided or directed the staff to remove that requirement from the policy.

I'm not so sure about that anymore. I now think that the staff wrote the policy without any input from the Board. That's a really disturbing possibility. There's always a lot of talk about this line between governance and management. Most of the talk is about how the Board should not cross the line and reach over onto the management side, but it has been my observation that it is far more common for the superintendent and the staff to trespass on the governance side of the line. This is possibly the most egregious example of that trespass. There is no task as central to governance as making policy, and here we see the staff usurping that core authority from the Board. Of course, this couldn't happen if the Board did not abdicate the authority.

I don't recall the conversation when the Board told the staff that Policy C56.00 needed to be revised, it would have been early in the Policy Review Project when the policies that needed revision instead of just re-numbering were identified. I don't recall anyone from the Board saying what was wrong with Policy C56.00 or how it should be changed. I would be astonished, however, if the direction from the Board was to eliminate the transparency requirement and to designate the creation and location of language immersion, Montessori, alternative, ALO, Spectrum, and IB programs as site-based decisions outside the superintendent's authority.

I do know that the stated purpose of the Policy Review Project was to eliminate the meaningless and un-enforceable policies, yet this policy was written specifically to be un-enforceable and meaningless. So what's that about?

No matter what direction - if any - the Board gave the staff on this policy, the policy written by the staff removed the transparency requirement, exempted a large number of programs, and was rendered un-enforceable and meaningless. The staff brought this dreadful scrap to the Board's Curriculum and Instruction Policy Committee, and the committee hardly read or discussed it before passing it along to the full board. They didn't even see the policy before their meeting. They took a couple minutes to read it in the meeting and were done with it a couple minutes later. They made no changes to it.

The C & I committee brought the policy back to their committee for another review, but, once again, they didn't change any of the policy's language before sending it back to the full board. Is this how the policy writing process is supposed to work?

Why wasn't this policy re-written in committee? In the committee, the tone was that the staff owned the policy and the Board was asking for changes rather than the Board owning the policy and directing changes in it. The members of the committee didn't seem to feel that they had license or authority to amend the policy there in committee, but that is exactly what they should have been doing. They treated the draft policy as if it had some legitimacy or that it represented some precedent that would require strong reason to alter. It wasn't treated like what it really was, a first draft written without any direction.

Director McLaren is offering amendments to the policy at the Board meeting, but she could have simply directed the changes in the policy at the committee meeting. Making the changes in committee would have had three benefits. First, the changes would have been made. Second, the public could see the changes and comment on them before the vote. That's not possible now. Third, it would demonstrate that the Board writes policy - not staff.

Usually when either the Board or the staff crosses the line between governance and management it is because the other party has left the work un-done. That's the case again here. It's not so much that the staff usurped the Board's authority and duties so much as it is a case of the Board abdicated them. Even when invited to take a hand in their work and provided with a specific opportunity to do exactly that, the Board directors demurred. I don't know exactly why, maybe it's just the culture of the district or the timidity of the Board members, but they continue to drift along with the current of events like rafts in a stream. It's like they are sleepwalking through all of the meetings and disbelieve their authority to govern the District. They need to put an oar in the water and start giving some direction. They need to start doing their job.

8 comments:

Maureen said...

It was my understanding that Phase I of the policy rewrite was to align SPS policies with those of the WA State School Directors Association. So I thought the initial language would have been a sort of WSSDA boilerplate. You can't get to all of the WSSDA policies without logging in, but the OSPI Highly Capable page has links to the WSSDA Highly Capable Programs Policy and Procedure (for example).

By the way, the SPS Policy Book Preamble link is live now and describes what they say is their procedure. Here's the link to the Phase II schedule. Of course many of the "lead staff" aren't with SPS anymore.

Here's a link to the School Board Policy Work page just for completeness.

BTW, I got most of these links by Googling "WSSDA Program Placement Policy" which lead me to Charlies' June 11th 2012 post on this topic. So I guess I'm not telling him anything new.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I absolutely think staff writes the policies (and it is largely been Holly Ferguson and Ron English with Erinn Bennett in some places). I also think that the direction from the Board largely comes from a few Board members.

There is wording that is normally used and maybe some Directors feel uneasy about writing in that fashion but they could write what they want to say and ask staff to shape it.

Of course, staff should give input and guidance to these policies but they are BOARD policies.

Anonymous said...

Remember the C&I committee when Harium Martin-Moris was helming it? The board might be sleepwalking now, but at least it's no longer in a deep coma. There has been no progress in years so any tiny steps beat past performance.

DistrictWatcher

Eric B said...

This isn't exactly a defense of SPS, but it's often shocking how poorly worded policies from all levels of government (and private industry) are. Professionally, I've just had to deal with a policy from DC that left all interpretation to the local inspector on the ground. The problem was that the policy gave no guidance to the local guy on how he should make that decision, so he just took the hardest line reading so it wouldn't be his butt on the line later.

I would be very surprised if Board Directors wrote policy. Usually, when elected officials try to do that, it all turns into an even more awful mess since elected officials usually don't have the expertise to write good policy. In the most "activist" Board case, some Board directors would meet with staff to outline what they want, staff would draft a policy for review, wash rinse repeat.

Board Members Appreciate Support said...

Do you share a passion about a policy with a board member? If so, contact them. You'll be surprised when they allow you to help shape and word the policy.

still beaming said...

Charlie:

For full understanding of process, please refer to your "culture of lawlessness" comment of recent past.

Charlie Mas said...

And the prize for funniest comment of the week goes to...

Board Members Appreciate Support

for this gem:

"You'll be surprised when they allow you to help shape and word the policy."

I have a passion for a certain policy, the program placement policy. I have both written and talked to the Board about it. Only two Board members have ever contacted me about this policy.

If the board was going to help me shape and word the policy then I really WOULD be surprised. I can't even get five of the seven to respond.

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