What is Policy Governance?

The school district follows the system of Policy Governance a model of managing a large

organization. We asked Paul Fisher, Pat Gleason, Tami Havener, Tom Sharp and Paula Stephenson members of the Steamboat Springs Board of Education to explain the system and tell how community members can address the Board of Education if they have problems in the district.

Q. What is Policy Governance?

A. It is one model of managing a larger organization. Its purpose is several-fold:

To function as an effective management model, Policy Governance requires well-articulated vision and expectations written as policies. This allows everybody in the organization to understand common goals of the enterprise, aim at the same target and “row together,” encouraging organizational synergies.

It develops several levels of decision-making, responsibility and accountability to match employees with the best knowledge and experience to the right decision-making opportunities.

Employees are empowered and held accountable to make decisions that they are best suited to make. An employee doesn’t need to “ask permission” if he or she is clearly empowered to make that decision. It also requires discipline from higher levels of authority not to “second guess” decisions, but to evaluate results and assess success. If desired results are not achieved, higher authorities are expected to encourage decision-makers to assess what could be changed to get better results.

This model provides the Board of Education and superintendent with time to devote to strategic issues and opportunities versus being deluged with tactical issues.

This model requires a majority of the BOE to agree on a policy or an action before anything happens. This minimizes personal agendas having an effect on issues and assures democratic decisions.

The majority rules. A minority position cannot prevail.

Q. What are the advantages and disadvantages of Policy Governance?

A. Just like everything in life there are pluses and minuses. This model is designed to create many positive dynamics that are difficult to achieve in larger organizations.

No matter where you are in the organization or what your job is, you still aim at the same target.

It better assures best decisions anywhere in the organization because it matches talent with decision-making.

Empowering people to make decisions creates many more minds working on getting things right. The more traditional and prevalent model in public education tends to identify a single point of authority, the BOE, and is much less efficient and effective for many reasons. Traditional boards of education have people who are not educational experts making too many decisions. That is a recipe for “less than the best” for students. It is critical, however, that before empowerment, there are clearly articulated objectives and expectations written as policies. Otherwise, empowerment means everybody making decisions without regard as to how those decisions affect other parts of the organization.

There are also subtle and more subjective dynamics that Policy Governance creates that are difficult to achieve in large organizations. Employees take ownership of the entire enterprise. They tend to think about how their actions affect others either positively or negatively and make decisions accordingly.

As mentioned, however, there are pitfalls to this model as well.

First, it is still novel in public education. That alone can cause problems because parents and staff have to learn to “navigate” in an organization with different dynamics and multiple decision points. In the more traditional public education district, anytime there’s a concern everybody knows where to turn the BOE. Because there are more decision levels, the Policy Governance model requires an appeals process and people need to be comfortable in using it.

In the traditional public education model, individuals may get decisions that they want more easily because they may have to convince just one board member to take action.

Policy Governance creates a sense of “disconnectedness.” In the traditional model, everyone feels connected to the single source of authority, the BOE. In the Policy Governance model, a teacher empowered to make certain decisions does not have to ask permission or be “second-guessed” by another decision-maker. This dynamic is clearly different and may create a sense of “disconnectedness.”

Q. What are practical examples of how Policy Governance works?

A. The state decided a few years ago that all Colorado public schools would transition to standards-based education. Because Steamboat was in a Policy Governance mode, the board empowered the superintendent who, in turn, empowered and held responsible principals, teachers and the director of content standards to change curriculum, choose texts and define teacher training requirements. They are the most knowledgeable to make those decisions. When compared to efforts by more traditional public education districts, Steamboat’s CSAP test results are testimony that Policy Governance is an enabling management model. Steamboat is realizing better results and improvements at a faster pace than districts managed in the traditional, less effective and less efficient management model where all decisions pass through the BOE.

How were teacher assignments and class size decided? This was a complex decision. Initially, the Administrative Team (superintendent, principals, directors) worked together to examine current research, grade level and subjects involved, available funds and other influencing factors affecting class size. Then the Administrative Team created an administrative class size policy reflecting its best judgment. In this case, the BOE chose to review the administrative policy and determined it was also appropriate to have a board policy. It was a decision that will never be perfectly equal and exactly “fair” to everybody involved. Compromise and balance are key.

The Policy Governance model empowers administrators and staff and holds them responsible for supporting board and administrative policies and the decisions resulting from those policies. None of this is to say that the BOE unduly cedes decision-making power. The BOE oversees the efforts, may ask for periodic reports to assess progress and ultimately assesses results of the district to assure the district is on track to realize its objectives.

Q. How does a parent, community member or staff member get resolution if they have a problem?

A. First address concerns with the person empowered to make the decision. If a parent has a problem with in-class discipline or grading, have a conversation with the teacher. If the parent isn’t satisfied with the answers, he or she may approach the principal. The principal will know if this is a first-time incident with the teacher or whether the teacher has been having problems in the area identified and what action is required. If no satisfaction is obtained, the parent may speak with the superintendent. If there is still no satisfaction, the parent may speak to the BOE. The BOE is not opposed to talking about any issue at any time, but the person with an issue will be asked if he or she has gone through the appeals process where the more knowledgeable people have had a chance to resolve the issue first.

If an individual has an issue with class size, the first place to address the concern is with the principal and the same appeals process applies.

Q. Is it inappropriate for constituents or district staff to speak to BOE members about specific district issues?

A. In two words: Absolutely not!

As mentioned, one of the pitfalls of Policy Governance is some increase in the feeling of disconnectedness. Communication in a large organization is always more difficult, so it is important for all stakeholders to be proactive in communicating.

It is important to distinguish between conversations for information sake and conversations that are meant to affect action. In Policy Governance, there is a discipline imposed on the BOE not to give instructions to any district employee except the superintendent and only then by agreement of the majority of the BOE. This is so that BOE members do not wade into situations and direct employees to take action where they have too little information or expertise. If a BOE member instructs an employee to take action (as often happens in traditional school districts), that may cause the employee to divert energy from higher-priority activities simply to accommodate a directive. Those empowered to make decisions must accept the responsibility to make them. If the decision-maker feels uncomfortable, it is inappropriate to divert the issue to the BOE, ask the BOE to make the decision and instruct employees to take action in accordance with the decision. The decision-maker should use available resources to make good decisions including research, peers, the Administrative Team, grade level or curriculum teams, School Accountability Committees, etc.

If a community member speaks to a member of the BOE to request action, and if the first-line decision-maker is not the BOE, the BOE member will ask the person to use the appeals process. If the issue requires BOE action because it is a BOE policy, the person cannot expect action without a majority of the BOE agreeing.

While this model is different and a little more complex, it enhances getting answers and resolving issues by the most knowledgeable people.

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