School & District Management

More Boards Mulling ‘Policy Governance’

By John Gehring — February 15, 2005 7 min read
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When the Clark County, Nev., school board pledged four years ago to avoid micromanaging the district and focus on the big picture of improving student achievement, the move was a radical shift.

For board members accustomed to dealing with what one described as “convoluted” policies that filled several 6-inch-thick books, the streamlined approach to governance was a welcome change.


But in formally adopting Policy Governance—a popular set of principles for effective boards conceived by the Atlanta-based governance guru John Carver—the board spawned a countermovement to restore a more activist approach.

A growing number of school boards—concerned that infighting, lack of focus, and a propensity for micromanagement are limiting their effectiveness—are turning to Policy Governance for similar answers. In a sign of the interest among boards and district administrators, the American Association of School Administrators hosted a Policy Governance seminar last fall.

In Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, a slate of candidates ran last fall on a platform of dumping the governance model, arguing it had created a rubber-stamp school board that handed over too much power to the superintendent.

While the challengers lost, the debate highlights the challenges school boards face when they rethink how they govern. As the demands on boards grow, observers say Policy Governance has become an appealing model for members grappling with a host of complex regulations and public pressures.

Simply put, school boards using Policy Governance monitor how well the district’s superintendent or chief executive officer meets the broadly written “ends” the board has defined as district goals. But the board does not prescribe the particulars of how the superintendent should reach them. Boards instead step back and evaluate what kind of job the top administrator is doing.

“Policy Governance is a huge paradigm shift for school board members who think they have to examine every line item and pick all the textbooks,” said Linda J. Dawson, the president and co-founder of the Aspen Group International, a consulting firm based in Castle Rock, Colo., that conducts Policy Governance workshops for school boards.

“Board members come in to fix things, but it crosses the line when they start giving directions to individuals in the system,” she said. “They get away from governance and into management.”

Carlos Garcia, the superintendent of the 231,000-student Clark County district, praised the working relationship he has with the school board under Policy Governance.

“This board is the closest I have seen to working as a team,” Mr. Garcia said, comparing the Clark County board to others with which he has worked. “Policy Governance has really helped them. It’s a system based on trust. I have to trust the board, and they have to trust me.”

Clashing Egos

School boards work in a politicized environment, where egos and ambitions can often derail a district’s focus, said Thomas Glass, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Memphis. And because the boards of the nation’s approximately 15,000 school districts are made up of members who are elected, appointed, and a mix of the two, no single governance model works for all, he said.

“An effective school board finds consensus,” Mr. Glass said. “But when you have budding politicians who are board members, they are going to act like politicians and posture. When board members are in conflict with each other, pretty soon the superintendent gets dragged in, and it’s all downhill from there.”

In Pueblo, Colo., the school board of the 18,000-student District 60 is considering adopting Policy Governance after struggling to confront the behavior of two board members.

One board member seen as overstepping her role was recalled by voters last fall. The other, accused of giving a speech in which she said Superintendent Joyce Bayles was encouraging Latino students to drop out to maintain a stream of workers for menial jobs, survived a recall effort. Christine Pacheco-Koveleski has said she was misinterpreted, but her tenure has been so divisive that students, teachers, and the principal of one local high school called for her resignation. Ms. Pacheco-Koveleski refused to step down.

Kitty Kennedy, the president of the Pueblo board, said the public drama that unfolded drained energy from district priorities.

“Poor board governance wastes precious time and steals your focus,” she said. “We never had the opportunity to do strategic planning. As a result, things just came out of the woodwork. We were dealing with board issues meeting by meeting.”

No Simple Fix

Mr. Carver, whose Policy Governance model is intended for any governing board, warns that school boards need to be careful not to view it as a simple way out of deep-rooted problems. Mr. Carver’s book, Boards That Make a Difference, published in 1990 and reissued in 1997, explains how the model works in nonprofit and public organizations.

Policy Governance in Action

The Policy Governance framework devised by Atlanta-based consultant John Carver focuses on separating issues of an organization’s purpose—or “ends”—from other organizational issues, “means.” Key features include:

• The board sets broad goals for the chief executive that can be clearly monitored.

• The board establishes executive limitations to highlight what the executive (superintendent) is not permitted to do in the daily operations of a system.

• Board members express dissent during the discussion preceding a vote. Once taken, the board’s decisions may be changed, but are never to be undermined.

• Board members “speak with one voice,” and they avoid taking action as individuals on issues unrelated to policy.

• The board defines and delegates authority instead of prescribing the particulars of how goals should be reached.

• Having clarified its expectations, the board assesses performance in that light, asking, “Have our expectations been met?”

More information is online at

“This is not a fix-it model,” Mr. Carver, who for 15 years worked as the chief executive officer of several public-service organizations and a national trade association, said in a recent interview. “If boards approach it that way, they are likely to be careless and not look at this systemically.”

One of the main problems, he said, is that boards often pick and choose elements from Policy Governance in a moment of crisis, though the model calls for unified implementation.

“It’s not always applied consistently, he said, “but when you’re putting a system together, that’s not the place to compromise.”

Don McAdams, a former school board president in the Houston Independent School District, now helps board members navigate matters such as choosing superintendents, developing policy, and managing crises.

“A lot of boards don’t know what to do,” said Mr. McAdams, who heads the Los Angeles-based Broad Institute for School Boards, “because no one has told them what to do.”

He argues that while Policy Governance has become a popular model for dysfunctional boards, it’s a limited approach that doesn’t challenge board members to radically reform school districts.

“When people talk about reforming urban boards, what they really mean is emasculating them and reducing their scope of responsibility,” he said. “If you’re really redesigning a district, these changes are of such magnitude that superintendents can’t make them alone. There are big changes that require the board to bring the community along.”

Mr. Carver, for his part, believes that Policy Governance represents a dramatic change from how most boards conduct business. Further, he said, it doesn’t preclude boards that adopt the model from overseeing more ambitious overhauls of their districts—and in fact can help them do so.

Clear Agenda

In Marietta, Ga., the 102,000-student Cobb County district attempted a piecemeal approach to Policy Governance several years ago. With rapid turnover on the board and a lack of consistent focus on the model, it never took root. Last spring, however, the board got serious about making it stick.

Mr. Carver worked with the board and superintendent in several all-day sessions. Five months ago, the board voted 5-2 to adopt the model. Some critics wondered if the $91,000 in consulting fees paid to Mr. Carver was worth the expense. A local newspaper editorialized strongly against Policy Governance, arguing that the model gives too much authority to the superintendent.

But Kathie Johnstone, the chairwoman of the Cobb County school board, believes Policy Governance has empowered the board to set a clear agenda for administrators, who are closely evaluated by the board through frequent monitoring reports.

It’s easy, she said, for boards to become bogged down in the minutiae of school construction projects or other issues that distract from the ultimate goal of student achievement. Policy Governance keeps them focused, she argued.

“It’s hard work, but it allows you to step back and be proactive with issues and create policies that are directed toward goals and the big picture, instead of micromanagement,” Ms. Johnstone said.

Marlene Cantor, a member of the school board in the 740,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, knows all about the pressure to respond to a daily stream of constituent requests.

In Los Angeles, board members represent regions that can have more than 100 schools, and the members often have two or three staff aides who help them stay on top of issues, including overseeing an $11 billion budget.

“People really don’t understand the role a board member plays, and their expectation is when there is a problem, there is a board member who should fix it,” Ms. Cantor said. “Even board members and superintendents get confused about what their job should be. We have to constantly discuss and define roles.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as More Boards Mulling ‘Policy Governance’


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