Policy Governance Revisited

When roles are scripted, will school boards and superintendents get snared in a role conflict paradox? by William J. Price

Few issues in local school governance have received as much attention in the professional literature as the issue of school board and superintendent relations. While many elements contribute to an effective relationship, the reason most often cited for poor relationships is the problem of role confusion.

Conventional wisdom suggests that such conflict largely can be resolved if boards simply stick to matters of district policy and superintendents stick to administration and operations. Those who advocate this role distinction for school boards and superintendents follow a governance model commonly found in the corporate world.

At the heart of such models for organizational governance is an attempt to categorize those tasks that belong exclusively to a governing board and those tasks that belong exclusively to the chief executive. Perhaps the best known-model framed from a corporate perspective is one developed by John Carver, which he calls Policy Governance. Carver suggests that his model is applicable to all types of governing boards, including boards of education.

Political Effects

While some school district officials across the country continue in their determination to make such a model work effectively, for others the prospects of achieving a solution to board and superintendent role conflict through the adoption of a corporate governance model seems unlikely.

My own experience as a former superintendent and more recently as a university professor who trains current superintendents suggests that corporate models of governance simply don't fit the reality of school district governance in a large number of school districts for two fundamental reasons.

First, unlike most corporate governing boards, school board members are politically elected office holders who define their role differently than the typical corporate board member. Corporate board membership involves a fundamentally different incentive that is primarily economic in nature.

Corporate governance derives economic benefits to the individuals within the governance structure. Common monetary benefits include such things as directors' stipends, stock and stock options, liberal travel and expense perquisites, as well as important business connections, contacts and information. In this environment the definition of what's rational in a decision-making sense is what makes sense financially to the corporation based upon high-quality/low-cost efficiency.

School board members, by contrast, derive little or no monetary benefit. With some exceptions for members who serve purely as a civic duty, many board members' interests are either ideological, political or both. Benefits for them are derived in the promotion of their own ideologies that they define as the public good. School board rationality, therefore, is contested.

In this political arena, organizational structures and governance roles are often the outcome of hotly contested political campaigns between several individuals interested in controlling the organization and gaining more personal influence.

The more highly politicized and single issue-oriented the school board election is, the more difficult it is to create a governance culture in which the school board operates within a carefully defined and crafted set of role expectations, while maximizing the role of the CEO. School boards that operate in such a highly charged political environment are not rational decision-making organizations, but rather are forums in which contests are played out between individuals who wish to control the organization to advance their interests.

In this context, convincing boards to operate within a governance model that advances the organization's interests rather than their own is difficult.

New Breed of Board

This political reality was made clear to me by the actions of one of my former board members. We had worked hard on developing several approaches to streamlining our board meetings so they ran smoothly and presented a well-organized corporate image to the public.

As part of that effort, we had agreed that the monthly payment of bills presented to the board for their approval was a legal requirement for the board, but that purchasing was essentially a management responsibility of the superintendent. I suggested as part of our governance structure that the board would exercise its fiduciary oversight responsibilities by ensuring that all expenditures were within the overall budget guidelines previously adopted by the board and that appropriate board policies on seeking quotes and bids on major items were in place.

Further, specific board member inquiries regarding any purchase could be answered, if necessary, by a quick telephone call to the superintendent before the meeting took place. Barring any irregularities, the individual purchase decisions were considered to be within the discretion of the CEO and were part of the overall management responsibility of the superintendent.

At the first board meeting following this governance agreement, one board member meticulously publicly questioned nearly every purchase item presented for approval. After the conclusion of an endlessly long meeting, I privately asked him why he had not contacted the business office or my office prior to the meeting for answers to his questions as outlined in our governance structure agreement.

The board member indicated that while he had indeed called the business office and was completely satisfied with the explanations he received, he nonetheless made it clear he wanted citizens at the board meeting, as well as the local news media, to observe his questioning the superintendent because he was running for re-election to the board and did not want to appear to be a rubber stamp for the CEO. He defined his role as an individually elected political office holder who promised his constituents he would be the guardian of taxpayer dollars by aggressively challenging all school district expenditures, even if it meant interfering with operations and district administrative roles.

In a chilling Education Week commentary in 1993 by Caroline Cody Burns titled "Requiem for the Superintendency," she described this new breed of board members as "intern politicians," full of righteous indignation, ambition, insecurity and anger. They see public disagreements as opportunities rather than disasters.

Such examples raise a fundamental question whether many school boards are capable (and more important desirous) of operating within a carefully crafted governance structure that allows and encourages the superintendent to operate like a genuine CEO. Such a model is simply inconsistent and limiting to the personal aspirations of a new breed of board members who may not see themselves as fulfilling a volunteer civic duty as a school board trustee, but rather engaging in a high-stakes form of local political activism.

A Changing Role

A second and less-recognized reason why traditional governance models seem unlikely in some school districts is that the role of the superintendent has been undergoing a profound transformation. At the core of this transformation is the shift of the superintendent/CEO role from manager to leader.

School boards (as well as some corporate boards) are, through their executive searches, seeking a CEO who will be expected to, among other things, forge a vision for the organization, translate that vision into a strategic plan and lead a campaign for increasing financial resources. Boards also seek candidates who will be expected to build coalitions in the community that resolve competing interests among the various stakeholders.

In a Policy Governance model, many of these tasks would rest not with the CEO, but with the governing board. The superintendent is defined more as an operational manager, and it is the board's job to resolve powerful community issues, to be visionary and strategic leaders and to establish its own agenda. The superintendent becomes a less high-profile community official and the board takes on the role of determining how the organization will respond to the community stakeholders.

Whether such tasks rest more appropriately with the superintendent or the school board is problematic. What seems clear is that in the search for the heroic leader who will single-handedly cure a troubled organization, governing boards are unwittingly changing the board/CEO relationship. A high-profile, aggressive superintendent often will get a negative reaction from some board members who may feel threatened as they perceive that their role and organizational control diminishes.

This outcome may occur even though the board specifically sought this type of leader while doing its superintendent search. One has only to examine the descriptions contained in current superintendent vacancy announcements across the country to sense the juxtaposition of roles. This, then, is the second paradox of role confusion.

Contributors to Confusion

Governing boards are not alone in fostering the transformation of the role of the CEO. University preparation programs in both education and business administration have undergone a shift in their curriculum. The traditional focus on management skill course work has been largely replaced by a curriculum focus on preparing leaders of organizational change and on leaders who will transform organizational culture.

While it can be argued that these new roles still can occur within a highly centralized governance model that separates policy and operational roles, it is more likely that a CEO who operates in this realm will drive policy and will operate outside a traditional governance framework.

To learn to lead organizational change, prospective superintendents are encouraged to develop skills in building their own power base. The use of collaboration to involve various constituencies in community-based planning efforts often places the superintendent in a highly visible leadership role that may change the balance of power with the board. The resulting diminished role of the school board ultimately may heighten role conflict. In extreme cases it may invite board retaliation through covert undermining of the superintendent by those who perceive an unwanted erosion of the board's power.

An Alternative View

Through my current work with a network of Midwestern superintendents, I have questioned several highly successful superintendents on the problem of maintaining clear role distinctions between the board and the superintendent. While most agreed that such a separation of roles would make their jobs much easier, most also agreed that such clear role definition was probably not realistic in their districts.

The complexity of issues, a new sense of activism by many board members and the fast pace of change has made the traditional role separation less likely. This finding supports my own prior superintendent experience. At times I found myself establishing district policy through my executive role while at the same time deferring to the board an operational task when the technical expertise of a specific board member made him or her better suited to accomplish the task.

The argument over policy versus operations as it relates to school boards and superintendents is rooted in an outdated view of school districts as organizations and of the current nature of the superintendency. Many superintendents now seem less concerned with the frequent overlapping of roles and responsibilities between the board and the superintendent and more concerned that both parties at least agree on who is expected to do what task in a given situation. These superintendents cite the absolute importance of assigning task responsibility in the context of that particular district.

For the superintendent, this means a continual process of clarification and understanding by both parties as to the sharing of roles and responsibilities. These roles may change as the context changes.

This is consistent with much of the past research on the importance of developing and nurturing a cooperative relationship between the superintendent and the board by a carefully choreographed negotiated system of the sharing of roles and responsibilities. Such an interactive relationship avoids getting into an unnecessary contest over roles that too often detracts from the real mission of the school district.

William Price, a former superintendent in Michigan, is a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University, Porter Building 304, Ypsilanti, Mich. 48197. E-mail: william.price@emich.edu