Moving Boards Out of Operations, Into Results

by Linda J. Dawson and Randy Quinn

School boards don't spend time doing what board members say they want to do. Our observations suggest most boards devote less than 20 percent of their time to the issues members acknowledge to be most important—student performance and achievement.

So what does consume school board meeting time? How about buses, buildings, boilers, budgets, bonds and butting into issues that really aren't board work at all?

Reacting, ratifying, second-guessing, listening to endless reports members already have in writing and approving administrative recommendations about programs and operational strategies do not constitute meaningful board-level leadership for the school district. Little leadership exists in any of those activities. There should be a higher level of contribution that the board—and only the board—can make to the district.

We find most board members eager to talk about redefining their roles to allow them to add value to their districts. The trick is to create a governance structure, culture and agenda that allow that shift to occur.

Change What?

Just what must change if boards are to provide intelligent leadership for the district and for kids?

For a start, agendas must change. Boards must remove from their agendas most things that now consume board time so they can address student issues. There isn't sufficient time to deal with everything. Boards must have a governance structure that allows them to delegate most operational decision making to their superintendents while providing for proper monitoring to ensure acceptable superintendent and district performance. This will free the board to plan student-centered results and to monitor district progress toward achieving them.

The board in Jefferson County, Colo., and its superintendent, Jane Hammond, have moved to the consent agenda those operational items that the board is obligated by law to approve. This replaces what had been a time-consuming, operational laundry list of three pages. Instead, the board focuses on strategic leadership and blocks time at each meeting to discuss its desired ends for student achievement in this large and complex district. The board's agenda focuses on the issues that the board has identified as important—not what someone else has handed to it.

Proper Channels

A related shift in thinking must occur. Board members must internalize for themselves a role definition that transcends "fixing things." Operating in the public arena can make this a difficult challenge, but it is a challenge that can be met.

To do so, the community must be educated about what the board believes to be important and how it has chosen to structure its own performance to ensure the important work gets done. That means that special, individual problems no longer can consume board time. Rather, the public is assured that those matters will be addressed at the proper level.

The school board of Orange County, Fla., is restructuring how it works with its vast constituencies. The board is developing a plan to pro-actively inform the public of its clear focus on students, not operations. The new process will ensure that community members' special concerns are addressed. The board recognizes that fixing things is important, while acknowledging that it has hired a competent staff to do that job quite well.

Boards must develop strategies to lead the change process, not just lend attentive ears to the loudest faction. Change is easy for no one, communities included. Parents and taxpayers may call for change until it happens, then recoil because "that isn't what I had in mind." The desired outcome from community engagement should be identification of shared values and a vision that is driven by the board itself.

The board and administrators in Fargo, N.D., serve an intense and focused community that demands that individual voices be heard at the board level. The board, therefore, is embarking on an ambitious and disciplined strategy to reach out to internal and external groups with a focus on academic achievement to determine what more the community expects.

Role Clarity

Finally, school boards must learn to lead from the level of policy, not from a lower level of decision making. Most boards never have developed a complete understanding of how board decisions can and must be policy decisions rather than operational-level decisions.

We can't overemphasize the critical importance of this point. All kinds of bad things happen in organizations when boards and chief executives share operational decision making, leaving policy to no one. Roles get confused, accountability gets lost or blurred, organizational vision is reduced to a period of days or hours rather than long-term and everyone within the organization becomes frustrated and ineffective.

The school boards in La Crosse, Wis., and Newark, N.Y., are better defining their roles in policy. Both boards are committed to greater clarity of roles and responsibilities that places both authority and accountability for operational decisions clearly with their superintendents. The counter responsibility for the boards is to discipline themselves to stay clearly focused on policy for student achievement, while monitoring operational performance to ensure proper organizational performance.

Indeed, boards can add value to the organizations they serve. Many do. But it is clear that for many, it is time for a complete overhaul of the board's governance culture and operating system.

Linda Dawson and Randy Quinn are founding partners of the Aspen Group International, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development for governing boards. They can be reached at P.O. Box 1777, Castle Rock, Colo. 80104. E-mail: