Ready, Set, Decide!

How the central office can help prepare school councils to make their own decisions by PETER FLYNN

In April 1995, with the state’s deadline for creating a site council more than a year in the offing, the faculty at Meadowthorpe Elementary School was in no rush to act--until their principal unexpectedly announced her retirement. Then the choice for the faculty at this medium-size school in Lexington, Ky., became obvious under the state’s new education reform act. Schools without a council have their principal chosen by the superintendent; schools with a council have their principal selected by the site council from a list presented by the superintendent.


The faculty quickly voted to form a school-based decision-making council and elected their three representatives. The PTA followed suit by conducting an election among the parents to select two representatives. The sixth council member was the principal, who was about to retire. The first major decision, in fact the first decision of any consequence, would be the selection of a new principal.

As superintendent, my central-office colleagues and I were not in a position to dictate the choice of a principal. We moved immediately, however, to assist this new school council in other ways as the members grappled with this most critical decision. In this new environment of school-based decision making, a primary role of central-office leadership is the preparation of the decision makers to carry out their responsibilities effectively.

The Need for Training
In the Fayette County Public Schools, which is the second largest in Kentucky with 32,500 students, each of our 55 schools has a council. Some councils have two or three administrators, which requires a proportionate number of teachers and parents. Councils with three administrators, for instance, must have six parents and nine teachers. The basic council consists of one administrator, two parents and three teachers.

At the moment, we have approximately 350 council members in our school district, some of whom never have been involved in participatory decision making. Now they are faced with decisions that include apportioning an allocated school budget of up to $5.5 million establishing the curriculum and instructional practices of a school; assigning time for staff and students; and selecting a new principal.

As a result of term expirations and mid-term resignations, council members turn over continually. New council members are required to receive six hours of preparation by certified trainers.

Our school district operates a training program to assist individual school-based decision-making councils in their responsibilities. Each school council requires a slightly different approach.

Preparation is carried out by a certified trainer who tailors the approach to meet the needs of the council based on its history and its plans for the future. Trainers teach councils about the personnel function, including such important aspects as:

  • what questions to ask and what to avoid in an interview with a job candidate;

  • what districtwide goals and policies (e.g., affirmative action and non-discrimination) are in place; and

  • what the research tells us about the qualities or attributes of an effective employee.

    One activity during this phase involves helping a council to develop a profile of the principal they are seeking. We facilitate this process, which involves parents and teachers in developing a description of the principal who most likely will meet the current and future needs of the school.

    We also teach council members the techniques of high-performance meetings, including meeting strategies that can make their work more satisfying and productive. Specifically, council members learn about arriving at decisions through consensus building, the approach to collaborative decision making recommended by the Kentucky Department of Education. When the decision making process becomes the content, the council learns to use consensus to make good decisions. Although most council members are accustomed to reaching individual decisions, not all have been part of a group process for effective decision making.

    We also need to provide alternative approaches for these adult learners. One frequently used technique is to have the trainer attend actual council meetings as a "friendly critic." The feedback from the trainer can be most helpful since it is provided on a timely basis and in the context of the meeting, where it can be dealt with immediately.

  • Stumbling Blocks
    School-based decision-making councils inevitably confront several common challenges soon after they begin. These include reluctant participants, insufficient time, the tendency to administer and the complex nature of federal and state law.

  • Reluctant Participants. A few principals are not enamored with the idea of sharing their decision making and have not engaged willingly in this new process. Most, however, are striving to conduct business in a collaborative mode. Likewise, central-office administrators are practicing collaborative approaches in their own meetings so they can model appropriate administrative behavior for building principals. We have used the works of Peter Block (The Empowered Manager and Stewardship) as excellent resources for the new skills administrators must learn.

  • Time. Many teachers complain about not having the time to learn about the new innovative classroom practices required by the Kentucky Education Reform Act, much less have the time to become involved in the decision-making process. Central-office administrators need to monitor the use of time to be sure that some of the outmoded "time consumers" are being off-loaded. For example, every staff member does not need to serve on a committee and an individual does not need to serve on more than one committee.

    In one of our schools we found that teachers were attending their own committee meetings and then sitting in on the other committee meetings because they did not trust their colleagues with decisions that might affect their department or classroom. In this case, the central-office administrators began to facilitate discussions on how to build trust.

  • The Tendency to Administer. Councils must be trained to deal with school policy decisions, lest they attempt to administer the school’s daily operation. Once the council begins dabbling in administration, the council may find it more comfortable than the larger, more complex realm of policy making.

    The principal’s role becomes that of a guide, who promotes the policy-making function for the school council, just as a superintendent would do for a school board. Therefore, central-office administrators need to assist principals in developing the skills of providing councils with direction, without being directive.

  • Complexities of the Law. The legal parameters for a council’s decisions are similar to those guiding school board decisions. Councils must understand the state and federal laws that govern such diverse aspects of school policy as purchasing and personnel. Central-office administrators inform and tutor council members in these areas so that they stay within the law.

    The councils’ decision-making powers, which are broad and meaningful, carry with them a serious responsibility and peer scrutiny. The state requires each council to develop policies in nine areas in order to guide its decision making. Furthermore, in our district the school board has directed that councils also develop policies on multicultural curriculum and parent involvement.

  • Central-Office Support
    In our school district, we have established a forum called Council to Council, where representatives from school councils come together to share information, techniques and ideas, while seeking answers to their questions about how collaborative decision making is supposed to work. Council members come together to share and to learn.

    This bimonthly workshop conducted by central-office administrators, most of whom are certified trainers, brings out teachers, parents and administrators who learn more about their roles as decision makers. Participants learn how to create a budget that reflects school needs, how to write effective and thoughtful policies and how to set attainable goals in the areas of curriculum and instruction.

    In addition, we distribute a newsletter to council members called Council Talk, filled with tips, success stories, deadline reminders, changes in regulations and other information.

    With the advent of school-based decision-making councils in all 55 of our school sites in Fayette County, we have found it necessary to restructure the central-office administration. We were careful not to assume that our restructuring would mean downsizing. Buildings still required support, leadership and guidance, and the central office has taken on additional functions of monitoring or auditing. However, the new administrative structure reflects a flattened organization with only one layer between building principals and the superintendent.

    The orientation of the central office is more responsive than directive; more facilitative than controlling. In order to practice the notion of pushing decisions closer to the level of implementation, we have asked the District Leadership Team (formerly the Superintendent’s Cabinet) to come up with two good reasons why a decision should not be made at the building level before making a decision at the district level.

    The role of the central office in the context of school-based decision making is to build the capacity for decision making at the building level. This is accomplished as central-office administrators become teachers, as well as leaders. Our role is to teach our building-based colleagues how to develop collegial and cooperative relationships, while making sound decisions on behalf of students.

    Future Decision Making
    As we are midway through our eighth year of the Kentucky Education Reform Act and the third year since our central-office reorganization, we have cautioned the people involved that the new structure we have put in place may not be the same one we need two years from now. The ideal would be a structure that is fluid enough to change with the needs and demands of building-level decision making. The more likely scenario will be a change in administrative structure every four to five years.

    The Kentucky model of school-based decision making has required schools to make dramatic changes. Consequently, we are struggling with different degrees of implementation and a turnover of council members, making it difficult for training to stay up with the needs. Nevertheless, the prognosis is good for school-based decision making. If people respond well and good decisions are made in the best interests of students, then the school-based decision-making councils may overcome these challenges.

    Shared decision making will evolve, as long as the decision makers have a clear vision of what they want to achieve as a result of their collaborative decisions. It is not sufficient to have people just feel good or feel involved. The decision makers must talk about where they are going on this journey of school reform and how they can get from where they are to where they want to be through collaborative decision making.

    Finally, decision makers must search out the principles upon which they base their individual as well as their group decisions. They may be able to survive by making situational decisions, but they will not prevail or prosper as decision makers without consistently basing their decisions on a strong set of principles aimed at helping students to achieve clearly stated standards.

    Peter Flynn is superintendent of the Fayette County Public Schools, 701 E. Main St., Lexington, Ky. 40502. E-mail: pflynn@msmail.fayette.k12.ky.us