Focus

The Board Agenda: A Means to Governance Reform

BOARD RELATIONS by LINDA J. DAWSON AND RANDY QUINN


Superintendents are prone today to lament their school boards’ tendency to micromanage. And while some board members might agree, many more argue they merely are doing their jobs to ensure smooth operations in the district. In truth, they are doing the work of the board as they have defined it.

So here’s the challenge for both the chief executive and the board: Simply redefine the role of the board.

Easily said, you say. But it is perhaps not quite so complex once we break down the task into component parts.

Virtually all will agree that the board acts as a body, not as individual members. Logically, then, the only time a board acts officially is when it convenes in a formal, legal meeting. Thus, clearly defining what the board does during meetings may be the key to significant governance reform.


Defining Board Work
If we accept that premise, then we must decide what goes on the board’s agenda. That makes the agenda supremely important, since most boards will act upon virtually any matter the agenda asks them to address. To define board work and decide what kind of matters should be agenda items, let’s pose some questions:

  • What is the board’s job description?

    It should have one, just as the superintendent does, and it should be written as a board policy. Once a job description has been agreed to by the board, the agenda should track those tasks included in the description and should avoid matters not included in the description.

    The latter point is key: Keep off the agenda any item unrelated to board work. Otherwise, the board is doing somebody else’s work, usually the superintendent’s.

  • What should be the board’s work?

    Most board members will say they are frustrated that they spend too little time on issues directly related to kids. They have a point: Most agendas we have observed devote as little as 20 percent of time and attention to matters directly affecting student achievement.

    Theoretically, every issue affects kids, but boards can and should have a higher level of contribution to make to the district than to spend a majority of their time discussing internal operations at the expense of valuable time that could be spent discussing student achievement expectations, performance and other matters directly related to the district’s mission.

  • How important is it for boards to spend valuable meeting time listening to staff and routine reports?

    The information conveyed may be interesting, but is devoting sometimes a third of the meeting to reports the best way to spend board time? Is the board adding value or simply reacting, ratifying or appreciating? Could the same information be conveyed in other ways that allow the board to spend its time deliberating board issues?

  • Must the superintendent seek the board’s approval for every important operational decision?

    Look back over the last several agendas and count the number of recommendations the board was asked to approve. Why? Most of them, we’ll bet, were operational matters. That’s the superintendent’s work, not the board’s. So why should the board be "blessing" the superintendent’s executive decision making? In doing so, the board and the superintendent are sharing responsibility and accountability for operational decisions and, in the process, destroying any hope for role clarity and accountability.
  • It should have one, just as the superintendent does, and it should be written as a board policy. Once a job description has been agreed to by the board, the agenda should track those tasks included in the description and should avoid matters not included in the description.The latter point is key: Keep off the agenda any item unrelated to board work. Otherwise, the board is doing somebody else’s work, usually the superintendent’s.Most board members will say they are frustrated that they spend too little time on issues directly related to kids. They have a point: Most agendas we have observed devote as little as 20 percent of time and attention to matters directly affecting student achievement.Theoretically, every issue affects kids, but boards can and should have a higher level of contribution to make to the district than to spend a majority of their time discussing internal operations at the expense of valuable time that could be spent discussing student achievement expectations, performance and other matters directly related to the district’s mission.The information conveyed may be interesting, but is devoting sometimes a third of the meeting to reports the best way to spend board time? Is the board adding value or simply reacting, ratifying or appreciating? Could the same information be conveyed in other ways that allow the board to spend its time deliberating board issues?Look back over the last several agendas and count the number of recommendations the board was asked to approve. Why? Most of them, we’ll bet, were operational matters. That’s the superintendent’s work, not the board’s. So why should the board be "blessing" the superintendent’s executive decision making? In doing so, the board and the superintendent are sharing responsibility and accountability for operational decisions and, in the process, destroying any hope for role clarity and accountability.

    A Reform Platform
    In our work with school boards and superintendents nationwide, we are finding that those boards that are serious about better defining their jobs attack the challenge through the agenda. Many of our clients are Policy Governance boards, a governance model that requires careful development of a board job description. They cannot fail to recognize the obligation to relate that description to the agenda and ask for each item on the agenda: Is this the board’s work?

    Most have taken it to another level and have linked every agenda item to a board policy. If they cannot find a policy that fits the agenda item, there’s a good chance that it isn’t a legitimate board task.

    As a means to assess the board’s performance during meetings, including whether the agenda included legitimate board and policy issues, we recommend the board debrief after each meeting. That activity need not be done in executive session; the board may simply stay seated for another five minutes while it answers the following questions: what worked tonight; what didn’t; what do we want to do about it? Everything else that is part of the district is being assessed so why not the board’s own performance?

    Can the board’s work be redefined without a major overhaul of the agenda? We don’t think so. The meeting is where work is performed, and the agenda defines what that work will be. We think that right after deciding in policy what the jobs of the board, superintendent and district should be, the agenda may be the next platform for meaningful governance reform.

    Linda Dawson and Randy Quinn are founding partners of The Aspen Group International, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development, at P.O. Box 1777, Castle Rock, CO 80104. E-mail: aspen@aspengroup.org.