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Federal Way School Board learns blueprint for management | Pros and cons of Policy Governance

Eight years ago, the Issaquah School Board was one of the first in the state to adopt a system of management called Policy Governance. Board President Jan Woldseth Colbrese said the system was adopted because the board had been working through some “difficult governance issues.”

The new management system was put in place to streamline the board’s business. Under Policy Governance, the board would adopt clear policies for the superintendent to follow, then monitor the results.

But over time, the board found that Policy Governance (a registered trademark) did not totally work for Issaquah. Some parts were great, Colbrese said, and Issaquah kept them. But others were not. So, the board took what it liked and made its own management system.

“Since then, we’ve come to realize that what we’ve adopted is kind of a hybrid; we don’t call it (Policy Governance),” she said. “We developed our own policies and made it ours.

“I believe in it strongly enough that I don’t believe a board should operate any other way,” she said.

Federal Way is where Issaquah was eight years ago. The Federal Way School Board adopted Policy Governance in September, and has since been working to implement it. The board spent an entire four-hour retreat Jan. 29 getting a refresher on the system and discussing ways to better put it into practice.

Experts and board members who use Policy Governance both laud and criticize it. The system uses jargon that might confuse casual observers; there is also the perception it takes power away from boards — in Federal Way’s case, a publicly elected board that oversees a vital publicly-funded institution.

But what is Policy Governance? Simply, it’s a management system. It purports to empower boards to set boundaries for its CEO — or, in a school district’s case, superintendent — by setting broad policies. Then, the board monitors whether the CEO followed the policies.

“Under Policy Governance, the board intends to provide leadership by identifying what it is that the community wants for its schools, for its students, and communicating to the superintendent and staff exactly what those expectations are rather than waiting for the staff to bring ideas to the board,” explained Rick Maloney, a University Place school board member and a Policy Governance instructor. He instructed the Federal Way board at the Jan. 29 retreat.

“Policy Governance identifies principles for the board providing guidance ahead of time,” he said. “Rather than reacting, the board takes more of a leadership role.”

Around the state, 15 districts other than Federal Way use Policy Governance, or at least some of its principles. Policy Governance was was created by John Carver, a professor at the University of Georgia. Using the model is free, but Carver trademarked it so that boards who don’t follow it entirely are not allowed to call it Policy Governance.

Steering clear of micromanagement

A good parallel to Policy Governance can be found in state government: senators, a governor and state representatives are sent by voters to Olympia to enact laws that govern the state. The legislators do not get into the nitty-gritty of how individual state departments work, but set broader laws under which those agencies operate.

The Legislature might enact a law that turns a piece of wilderness into a state park, but the state Parks and Recreation Commission would create the hiking trails and set rules for campers. Nor would the commission ask the Legislature where it thinks trails should go.

Under Policy Governance, for example, the Federal Way School Board might have a policy that deems the superintendent “must not allow harm to come to students or district employees.” It would be up to the superintendent to determine how to accomplish this goal. But the school board would monitor whether the superintendent followed its broad policy.

“The board writes policies and the superintendent must comply with those policies,” Maloney said. “Then the superintendent writes guidance to staff – the rules that go into sufficient detail to get the required work done.”

The Policy Governance website states that the system is generic, and could be used for any board — from a nonprofit to a school district to a corporation.

The essence of Policy Governance is that a board steers clear of micromanagement. It also has the effect of moving the board further from management and closer to the public. Under Policy Governance, the board is supposed to conduct outreach with the public — called “linkage” — to hear concerns that might shape board policy. At last Saturday’s retreat, the Federal Way School Board set its first linkage session for March 29.

Rigidity, criticisms

Donald Kreis is a professor at the Vermont Law School. He is also on the board of the Hanover Consumer Co-op Society, the second largest food co-op in the nation. Prior to his joining eight years ago, the board adopted Policy Governance.

A lot of co-ops have adopted the system, he said, because most board members don’t know how the grocery industry works. Like with a school system, he said, school board members might not necessarily know how to teach. And in this vein, he likes Policy Governance.

“If the model is used correctly, it focuses the attention of governing boards on what really matters,” he said. “What really matters is, what are the results, at what cost and for whom.”

Though he likes the system, he sees downsides.

“I am concerned about a governing model that people of intelligence and good will can’t implement effectively without professional outside assistance,” he said. “The insight it requires to know how much discretion to give your employees, how to assess discretion competently, it requires some real expertise.”

Policy Governance uses some jargon unfamiliar to the lay person. The board defines accomplishments with the term “ends” rather than “results.” An “executive limitation” is the boundary, or policy, set by the board; there are “owners” (the public) and “linkage.”

“The purpose for the words is to get us out of routine thinking,” Maloney said. “If you decide to communicate in public in more ordinary terms, that’s not a problem.”

Kreis has observed it’s hard for a board to know what it needs to know. If some information is not disclosed to the board, then the board cannot set a policy around it.

“This goes to the heart of whether a Policy Governance board can fully execute its fiduciary responsibility,” he said.

This was partially the case in Issaquah. Colbrese said Policy Governance was too rigid in budgeting.

“There are certain ways the board feels to dictate things, especially on finances,” she said. “We like to send a message to the administration that this is our level of comfort” with the budget.

Another criticism of Policy Governance is that it gives too much control to the superintendent, and that getting rid of micromanagement takes the “checks” out of “checks and balances.”

"You're exercising complete control by providing guidance over every aspect of the work, but, yes, you are delegating to authority to get responsibilities done," Maloney said. "You've got to align authority and responsibility."

Early stages

Though the trademarked John Carver model of Policy Governance is strict, there is room to change.

The Bellingham Board of Education, like Federal Way, is just starting down the Policy Governance road. It adopted the model in November, said President Ann Whitmyer. Bellingham adopted the system after hearing about positive experiences from other boards.

“Policy Governance provides that structure that makes it clear what is board business and what is not. That's one of the values,” she said.

The board has had to learn a lot about the new system. One of Carver’s training books, she noted, was “one of the driest things I’ve ever read.” Lately, the Bellingham board has been getting into the swing of it.

Conversely, some boards change the system over time. Like Issaquah, Mercer Island and Yakima do not use the trademarked Policy Governance, but their own house blend. Board President Martha Rice said that the strict Carver model seems like a good fit for a private business. School boards are already governed by many state and federal rules, and are required to approve detailed items. At each meeting, for example, the Federal Way board approves thousands of dollars in spending — and cannot delegate this approval to the superintendent.

“From my perspective, it doesn't fit completely seamlessly into school district operations in the way a school district needs to be governed,” she said. “We use the pieces that work for us.”

One piece Yakima uses, she said, is “executive limitations,” or the boundaries the board sets for the superintendent. Yakima has also constructed its own board policies.

“It's a matter of identifying those pieces that do work,” she said. “We set parameters for the budget process. When we're doing budget work, we say, ‘these are the must-haves, these things are non-negotiable.’ Under Carver, you don't necessarily do that.”

Depending on local needs, Maloney said, Policy Governance can change. But he cautioned against straying too far from Carver’s policies because that’s what makes the system work.

“You can change your policy at any time, but you need to think prospectively in terms of accountability,” he said. “If you're following the model, you want follow the principles. All that John Carver asks is that you don't call it Policy Governance if you're not going to follow the principles. But that's one of the beauties of local control. Each community has its own needs, and boards can respond to the local requirements.”

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