I opened the video webinar I recently presented for the board and superintendent of a Northern Virginia school division by observing that K-12 governance is frontier territory. Far from being a mature, fully developed field, K-12 governance is characterized by the absence of universally accepted principles and best practices, which are the subject of often-vociferous debate around the country. In fact, when conducting research for my newest book on K-12 board and superintendent leadership, Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership: 11Critical Questions You Need to Answer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), I wasn’t surprised to learn – actually, confirm – that there’s not even widespread agreement on a detailed definition of the nuts and bolts work involved in governing. All too often it’s vaguely defined as a passive-reactive “policy making” process, which has the board thumbing through and reacting to staff-produced “policy” documents.
K-12 governance isn’t just an under-developed function, it’s also really treacherous terrain – filled with bad advice that can irreparably damage the board-superintendent partnership. These “insidious foes” of a solid board-superintendent partnership are erroneous assumptions about one or another facet of the governance function. What makes them insidious is that they can sound plausible at first blush, mainly because they have been urged on school board members and superintendents by self-proclaimed governance gurus with a shallow understanding of the complex work involved in governing a school district.
One of the insidious foes we discussed during the video webinar is the mistaken belief that a sure-fire approach to building a high-impact board-superintendent governing team is something commonly known as “policy governance.” In a nutshell, the so-called policy governance approach involves clearly delineating board and superintendent roles and responsibilities and establishing clear rules to guide participants in playing the governing game. For example, how large a contract or check the superintendent can sign without board approval, how board officers are chosen, the mechanics of board evaluation of superintendent performance, the determination of who speaks for your district on particular kinds of issues, etc. etc. etc. These rules of the governing game are often described in great detail in a board policy manual.
Now, rules of the governing game are clearly needed, as is the delineation of board and superintendent responsibilities. But, alone, as many if not most of my readers have no doubt learned, rules cannot possibly get high-impact governing work done. The policy manual is only the foundation for governing. The actual work of governing involves well-defined processes for engaging district board members and executives in collaboratively making governing decisions and judgments. And really board-savvy superintendents know that they must take the lead in designing processes that enable board members to play a substantive, meaningful role in shaping important governing “products,” such as a strategic plan or annual budget, so that they own – and are hence committed to – their governing decisions. This kind of board engagement is a far cry from merely thumbing through and reacting to staff-generated policies.
I told a true story during the video webinar I was presenting: about being called a couple of years ago by a board president and superintendent, who informed me they urgently needed assistance in re-building a dangerously frayed board-superintendent working relationship – several months after spending lots of time and money developing an elaborate board policy manual. They had learned the hard way that policies – rules, if you will – can only guide participants in the governing game; they can’t actually play it.