Posted Date: 06/07/2022
One of the foundational governance pieces we preach to school board members is that the policies you adopt become the school district's laws. When we talk about school board policies, school board members immediately think about the alphabetically labeled statements that KASB provides updates on biannually. I will discuss those later in the blog and how to ensure alignment and accuracy. Another way to think about "policy" in the board governance realm is anything the board formally votes to enact. Every time there are four votes to adopt a position, the board forms a policy.
I challenge board members to think about the policies they adopt and the procedures or actions that will trigger, then ask, "do those actions and procedures align with our goals and vision for the district?" One example where school boards frequently grapple with policies that may not align with their vision or goals is around what is the best educational setting for students to be successful. That is a fancy way of saying school start times, calendars, student schedules, and work-based learning opportunities. Often school boards continue to perpetuate what has always been done, even with compelling research on these topics. In many school districts, policies have not kept pace with evolving school district priorities or the school board's vision. So how does a school board bring the policies in alignment with the goals and the adopted vision?
Aligning school board policies with the goals and the vision must be done with intentionality. A great place to start is with student performance data. Student performance data should include assessment scores, grade level matriculation rates, school attendance, foundational skill attainment rates, graduation rates, post-secondary success, ACT scores, CTE pathway completion rates, student disciplinary referrals trends, and the number of students requiring additional social-emotional support. The districtwide goals should define this list. These serve as the indicators that will highlight where current policies are supportive or prohibitive of student success.
The school board's local policies should align with the conditions that students need to be successful. School boards in Kansas will be required to review many of these data as part of the needs assessment process codified into law with HB 2567 during this legislative session. Many school boards do this work during retreats or work sessions throughout the school year. These opportunities are where school boards spend time learning about the current realities their students are experiencing, then reviewing policies to ensure alignment.
Student and staff handbooks are another area to begin looking at alignment between board policies and actual practice. Handbooks clarify what the district policies look like in practice. The school board should annually approve district handbooks after being updated or revised to align with current board policies. Too often, a board policy will get changed, and changes will not get reflected in the handbooks. Handbooks are typically brought to the school board for approval in the late summer before enrollment and school starts.
School boards need to have established a system for updating these that ensures alignment with board policy and district goals. In some districts, the school board commissions a committee to review handbooks. This committee generally will consist of one or two board members and appointed building and district staff—the committee checks for alignment between district goals, school board policy, and practices. The committee then recommends the changes to the school board for annual approval. These policy/handbook committees are ongoing and meet throughout the year.
A couple of different factors typically drive changes to board policies. The first factor is changes in federal or state laws or changes in regulations established by the Kansas State Board of Education. The legal team at KASB works to stay on top of these changes and provides school boards with a list of suggested policy updates to be considered by local school boards. The local school board should vet these recommendations and then adjust their current policies to comply with current laws and regulations. The local school board can change the recommendations to fit their local context; however, our attorneys will caution local school boards against adopting policies that violate current federal or state law or state board of education regulations.
Local policy adjusting gets into another area of policy-making known as "home rule." "Home rule" means that local school boards can adopt a policy for whatever they choose as long as it does not violate federal or state laws or state board of education regulations. The second factor that drives changes to the board of education policy is changes in the district vision and district-level goals. School boards should have an established vision for the district and corresponding districtwide goals. The vision and goals provide a framework for decision-making and benchmarking the district's progress.
Without a clear vision and district goals, policies can and will dramatically change based on the shifting beliefs and values of individual board members that come and go. Remember, the policies are the school district's laws, so continuity is essential, so students, staff, parents, and patrons know the expectations. Consistently reviewing the district vision and goals to ensure alignment to the current realities within the district will lead to policy adjustments. School boards going through annual board self-assessment, goals and progress updates, and school board work sessions focused on improvement and barriers to success, are systematic ways to ensure alignment. The worst time to align board policy to current realities is in the heat of the moment related to issues in front of the school board. Examples where this often occurs are student discipline procedures, staff not fulfilling work obligations, student schedule flexibility, and curriculum vetting procedures.
To the right is the governance clock or cycle that we use with school boards to help them visually see how their duties are ongoing. The responsibilities around the clock allow the school board to improve alignment between the vision, district goals, and policies. The "why" the school board uses to form the vision, goals, and policies must be the same as the "why" the leaders use with the internal team. A "universal why" is imperative to maintaining the desired alignment.
When school boards set a clear vision, establish clear goals supporting that vision, and adopt policies that align, action will happen within the district that makes the vision a reality. The challenge for school boards is to stay focused on the vision and adopted district goals and then align their policies/actions to those public proclamations.