Clarifying Board and Superintendent Roles

Several Colorado boards have applied Policy Governance to define their parameters and those of the chief executive by LINDA J. DAWSON AND RANDY QUINN

Sometimes real life defies explanation. Some realities vary so greatly from logic that we see, but we can't believe. We may even accept, but we can't understand.

Such is the case with school board-superintendent relationships. How can one explain how such seemingly complementary roles can clash so greatly in practice? How can one employing entity so proudly announce to the world its "nearly perfect" choice for superintendent one year, only to see the wheels come completely off within months? What is it about this relationship that makes it seemingly impossible for the people involved to reach common understanding about whose role it is to do what? And why is it that reasonable role definitions are so perpetually elusive?

For most of the 40 combined years we have worked with school boards and superintendents to help them find answers to these nagging and career-threatening dilemmas, we have been as stymied as those caught in this web. We did all the traditional things to help the parties find clarity: We ran retreats and workshops; we created boxes into which we placed all the tasks the board should perform and all the tasks the superintendent should perform; we facilitated the development of mutual commitments and covenants between parties; we played traffic cop, counselor, shrink and adviser.

Still we saw far too many troubled relationships. We knew there were answers, but we couldn't find them. Finally, after careers that featured excessive frustration, we discovered why: We were looking for answers in the wrong places. We were assuming we were dealing with:


  • A performance problem. If we could just improve peoples' personal skills and knowledge, and hence their performance, they would work better with each other.



  • An attitude problem. If the boards and superintendents could confront the negative attitudes held by people that prevented positive interaction, things would improve.



  • A set of personal problems. Sometimes people just don't like each other. If we could get people to focus on a common, larger vision, they could rally around that and not spend their time dealing with the negative factors that divide them.


    The Disclarity Problem
    Some truth lies behind all these assumptions, at least in some specific circumstances. But it is now crystal clear to us that the real, underlying problem of board and superintendent relationships is not attributable to any of the above. The real problem is the traditional governance culture in which most school boards try to function. The traditional process of doing board business not only allows role confusion, it causes it. Let us explain.

    We typically say the board's job is policy. Really? Bring to mind your school board's last meeting agenda. How many policy decisions did the board make? By comparison, how many decisions were focused on operational issues? (Now for the embarrassing question: Who prepared the agenda that asked the board to make those operational decisions?)

    The problem is that when both the board and superintendent share decision-making at the operational level, role confusion should not surprise anyone. Confused roles are an inevitable byproduct of such a process.

    We say that the board has only one employee: the superintendent. Yet when we analyze the board's policy manual, we see board policies aimed directly at all employees, not just at the superintendent. The board indeed can control all employees through policy, but it must do so through its only direct employee, the superintendent.

    We find that most board policies focus more on operational concerns than on governance concerns, another contributor to role confusion. The fact that a typical school board policy manual consumes a small forest of paper products is evidence of policy aimed at the wrong target. The board can and should state its policy-level concerns in a handful of very broad policies, then leave the administrative detail to that superintendent whose hiring it so proudly announced last year.

    Sometimes, in fact, it seems as if the school board and the superintendent have reversed roles. Many superintendents spend more time with policy than their boards do, and many boards deal with operational matters at least as much as the superintendent does. How can role clarity be expected from such confusion?

    Policy Reigns
    For us, both the problem and the solution became clear with John Carver's publication of Boards That Make a Difference, published in 1990. Carver described the problem just as we had experienced it. He not only identified the problem, but he took the next step by offering the solution, a model he calls Policy Governance (see related article).

    Policy Governance suggests that every decision a board makes should be a policy-level decision. The model provides that only four kinds of policies are necessary for the board to fully express its unique values for the organization. These four categories of policies are:


  • Governance process policies, which set in policy how the board will conduct its business and the discipline members will exercise to govern themselves with excellence;



  • Board-staff relations policies, which establish how the board and superintendent will interact with each other and how performance will be measured;



  • Ends policies, which describe the ultimate benefits the district will provide for its students and at what cost; and



  • Executive limitations policies, which establish the boundaries within which the superintendent may make operational, or means, decisions while working to achieve the ends.


    Whose Inbox?
    In terms of establishing absolute clarity of roles and who does what, this latter category of policies is key. In essence, these are the "Thou shalt nots" that provide clarity for the superintendent by stating, in advance and in policy, what the superintendent may not do. Anything not prohibited by the board as an executive limitation may be done by the superintendent as he or she makes the means or operational decisions necessary to achieve the board's ends.

    The superintendent's job description has only two features: achieve the end results specified by policy and stay within the boundaries set by the executive limitations policies as he or she goes about daily work.

    Think of decision-making as a continuum. A point exists along the continuum where the board will stop making decisions because all the board's concerns about the particular topic will have been expressed. At that point, the superintendent may begin making further decisions about that same topic. The process may continue throughout the district, all the way to the classroom, where one teacher may have a particular concern about a student behavior issue, for example.

    Role clarity comes with the continuum and with the concept of executive limitations. Instead of the challenge of trying to decide whether a decision belongs either in the board's box or the superintendent's box, it is clear from the policy where the board stops making decisions. At that point, the superintendent is free to do his or her job.

    Colorado Experiences
    When Policy Governance was introduced by Carver, we were executives with the Colorado Association of School Boards. We saw it as a model that held great promise for helping overcome many of the frustrations we have described. While we are unable to detail all the steps we went through in our work with school boards in Colorado, the short version is that we launched a formal service to help our members adopt this new way of doing business. Within the first three years, 12 school boards made the move, and the results have been impressive.

    The first of our client boards was the Lake County school board in Leadville, Colo. Lake County Superintendent Peg Portscheller, Colorado's superintendent of the year in 1997, believes Policy Governance has clarified her role and that of the board.

    "Our board struggled with minutiae. We have a district plagued with under-funding and extraordinary capital needs," she says. "Board members were so consumed with leaking roofs, finding the cheapest qualified vendors and making decisions about any and all building improvements that they never spent time on the issues they had run to effect--improved learning opportunities for kids."

    Under the executive limitations policies of Policy Governance, the board stated all of its values about how Portscheller would run the school district, including building maintenance and the budget. The operational challenges to the district have not changed, but the board's approach to them has, she says. "Members recognize they hired me to do this job. They now spend their time talking with staff, students and community about our educational program and our profound need for greater community support if we are to graduate students prepared for further schooling and careers."

    Several Colorado school districts have experienced the distracting agendas of the one board member committed to creating upheaval and tumult. Sometimes the cause is ego, sometimes political, sometimes philosophical. But the results are often the same with boards splintered, growing community distrust and a demoralized staff, often resulting in the departure of the superintendent.

    Both Lake County under Portscheller's leadership and Weld County RE-3J in Keenesburg, Colo., under the helm of Dennis Disario, have experienced that situation. But both boards and superintendents have weathered the controversy by using their policies.

    "Our board and I suffered through one person's insidious behaviors," says Portscheller. "It could have torn us and the community apart if we hadn't been able to constantly refer him back to our governance process policies privately and then in public board meetings. He was violating the policies he had agreed to support and the board didn't allow him to get away with it. The staff and community saw what he was doing and a successful recall resulted."

    In Weld County, a district with 1,509 students, Disario says things have improved to the point where the board will listen to one member's concerns, but doesn't allow entire meetings to stray to restatements and reiterations. The board stays focused now on the clear goals set out for the professional staff.

    "The board asks itself at the very start of every new discussion, 'Is this the board's business?' and if they stray, I am free to say, 'No, that's my job' and their response is, 'Oh yeah, you're right,'" Disario says. "We have an empowered staff, allowed to develop operational strategies, under the strategic leadership of the board that knows its collective role and is committed to disciplining its own members, to the person, to stay within it."

    Thomas Farrell, superintendent in Aspen, says Policy Governance has changed the way the school district does business. "For eight years it was the shotgun approach. I had no clear direction, board members were in the day-to-day business, and I spent my time trying to please five people," he says. "Personnel matters were out of hand with staff going around me to the board and the board going directly to staff members to give direction. Since the board has adopted this model of governing, I am running the district as the chief executive officer."

    Farrell says he and the board talked through exactly what was important when it came to student achievement. "They said, 'Here are your goals, go do them.' ... Now my job is to find ways to report to the board and convince members that student achievement is improving in the areas they defined."

    The transition, he admits, has not been easy. He has found it stressful to work toward achieving the board's goals for student performance and to manage the dramatic change in culture. "But I wouldn't go back to the traditional governance model with a board," Farrell adds. "I have a clear picture of my job and my relationship with the board acting as one--not five individuals."

    In the 2,000-student Steamboat Springs Public Schools, the school board had lost sight of its leadership role and often was torn by conflicting community demands and school committees. Cyndi Simms, the district superintendent, says she and the board recognized that they needed to reassert strategic leadership over the schools, in combination with other civic leaders, in order to make the public schools "a credible force and priority in our town of intense citizens and staff."

    The board identified key beliefs and defined clear and specific goals for student performance. Then they brought staff and community in to roll them out. "Now I am charged to focus on those results and I work with the board to build community support for achieving them," says Simms. "Staff is realigned to make those results happen and we are moving quickly into site-based management organized around articulated curriculum and delivery. Our district and site accountability committees work with us in further defining goals and reporting achievement."

    Safe Ground
    In virtually every Policy Governance project we have facilitated, both the board and superintendent saw the advantages of the model, and both eagerly embraced it. From the board's perspective, Policy Governance holds the advantage of greater focus on children and their success, which is what we believe leads most board members to run for the position.

    In addition, the model requires the board to think and decide at the policy level, not at the operational level. It reduces the number of board policies from the typical 300 or more to a manageable 35 to 40 governing policies. It sets in policy the governance culture, style and discipline of the board and creates a pro-active linkage between the board and the district's owners--the taxpayers.

    From the superintendent's point of view, Policy Governance offers unprecedented freedom to do the job, but this freedom is balanced by accountability for results. Total districtwide alignment becomes necessary for results to be achieved. Policy becomes the single driver for what the district does, eliminating the competition for the driver role that we see so often in school districts that pledge allegiance to board policy, a strategic plan, board goals, superintendent goals or any number of additional things that compete for the driver role.

    The dominant attraction for superintendents seems to be the promise of role clarity. Over and over superintendents tell us that for the first time in their careers, they are confident they are operating on safe ground. They say they are enjoying their freedom to do their jobs without constantly seeking the board's permission or approval of an operational choice. And they have no fear of the accountability part because now they at least know the end results for which they will be held accountable.

    Linda Dawson and Randy Quinn are founding partners of Aspen Group International, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development, at P.O. Box 260301, Highlands Ranch, CO 80163 E-mail: aspengrpintl@csn.net. Both formerly were executives with the Colorado Association of School Boards.