The last article posted at this blog, “Another Insidious Foe of a Solid Board-Superintendent Partnership,” tells how getting your school board involved in one of those traditional comprehensive long-range planning processes can be dangerous to the health of your partnership with the board. The reason is simple: traditional long-range planning leaves board members feeling dissatisfied because it doesn’t generate significant change. Since posting that article on September 8, I’ve been asked by several readers to describe a practical alternative to the traditional approach that actually produces important innovation. This article, which is adapted from my book Governing at the Top (AASA and Rowman & Littlefield), describes just such a contemporary approach. I’ve taken the liberty of posting a longer-than-usual article because the stakes involved in taking command of change are so high for school districts.
The following scenario is becoming much more common in today’s rapidly changing, always challenging world, which is forcing school districts all over the country to confront thorny issues in the form of both challenges and opportunities. Recognizing that they face a stark choice – either be changed, quite often traumatically, by the forces swirling around them, or take command of their own change – they’re increasingly choosing the latter, more proactive course.
Sifting through the list of issues – both opportunities and challenges – facing the district, which had been identified at the daylong strategic work session involving all board members, the superintendent, and her top lieutenants two weeks earlier, the board’s planning committee, working closely with the superintendent, came up with a short list of three issues that demanded very special attention now. These issues were too high-stakes and complex to be handled through the mainstream operational planning/budget development process, and the cost of deferring action was deemed prohibitive. One was clearly the most challenging: the need to close at least two elementary schools because of the steady decline in households with kids of school age – a decline that was projected to accelerate over the next five years or so. An issue of such technical and political complexity couldn’t possibly be addressed through the mainstream operational planning/budget development process. Although a bit less daunting, the other two issues couldn’t possibly have been handled through business-as-usual planning: the need to re-build the district’s relationship with the business community, which had grown extremely adversarial in recent years, especially in light of an almost certain campaign two years hence to seek a real estate tax increase in light of declining state subsidy; and an increasingly dysfunctional school board that clearly needed to be transformed into a more cohesive governing body.
The vast majority of issues that had come up during the work session two weeks earlier were operational, in the sense that they could effectively be addressed in putting together next years’ operational plan and budget, for example: needed tweaks to the faculty development plan and budget to capitalize on recent research on instructional methodology; the need to beef up security at the middle school; and the need for a change in the contract with the county literacy council for the use of school tutoring space to reflect increased district utility and maintenance costs. These and the other operational issues were very important and demanded serious district attention, but feeding them into the annual operational planning process made the best of sense.
Over the past decade a new approach to identifying and addressing complex, high-stakes issues that, like the three described in the above scenario, can’t be handled through the normal operational planning process – what are commonly called “out of the box” issues – has been successfully tested and is rapidly spreading in the public and nonprofit sectors, including K-12 education. Widely known as the “change investment portfolio process,” this approach is, in my professional opinion, the “gold standard” for school board involvement in the planning function for four pretty obvious reasons. First, the stakes involved in effectively addressing the issues are so high for the district that they compel serious school board attention. Second, school board members, drawing on their diverse knowledge, expertise, experience, community connections, and perspectives, are uniquely qualified to participate in the portfolio process, particularly early-on in the issue identification and selection phases. Third, since implementing significant change almost always encounters resistance and often requires a significant financial investment, school board involvement is essential for generating commitment. And fourth, as every board-savvy superintendent well knows, it wouldn’t be prudent to keep the school board on the periphery of such an important and exciting process.
Therefore, many board planning committees in recent years have worked closely with their superintendent in designing applications of the portfolio approach that are tailored to their district’s unique circumstances. Although in planning, as in almost all other functions, one size cannot possibly fit all, these applications have certain features in common:
- The district holds a kick-off board-superintendent-executive team “strategic work session,” at which district values and vision are revisited and updated, issues are identified and analyzed, and possible change initiatives are brainstormed.
- The board planning committee analyses the issues subsequent to the work session, and selects what appear to be out of the box issues. The issues that are clearly operational are then funneled to the annual operational planning/budget development process to be addressed.
- The board planning committee next analyses the out of the box issues in greater detail in order to determine which ones need to be tackled at the present time, and which ones can be relegated to the “tomorrow file” to be dealt with next year or later. In practice, of course, the selection process is far from scientific, but it does take serious thought. The objective is to select the issues that appear to involve the highest cost to the district if not addressed in the near term – in other words, the price of not acting now on the issues. For example, referring back to the scenario opening this section, you can readily understand that failing to get started now with re-building the district’s working relationship with the business community would jeopardize passage of the tax issue two years hence, since the rebuilding process could be expected to take a long time.
- Of course, the superintendent and her executive team are closely involved every step of the way, working closely with the board’s planning committee, but at this point the ball is passed to the superintendent and her team, who take the lead in coming up with mechanisms for addressing the selected issues (for example, a task force consisting of top district administrators, parents, and community leaders to fashion a school closing strategy; a board governance task force to deal with the board dysfunction issue).
- The change projects that are generated to address the selected out of the box issues are separated out from mainstream district operations and managed in the change investment portfolio, where they will receive the attention required to ensure implementation.
- As the years pass, change projects in the district portfolio are implemented (or in some cases abandoned) and mainstreamed, while new issues are identified and new projects added to the portfolio.