The Georgia Constitution delegates the control and management of public schools to local boards of education. The board is a group of individuals operating as a single entity through the policies it adopts or lets stand. It should be clear to any observer that organizational decisions are made based on the policies set. Since board policies carry the force of law in the school system, it is important to understand what policies are and are not.
Policies are principles and goal statements adopted by the board to define the parameters within which the superintendent and staff carry out their assigned duties. Policies define what is wanted and may include why and how much. They are broad enough to indicate the direction to be taken by the administration in resolving day-to-day problems, but narrow enough to give clear guidance as to the board’s expectations. Policies, then, are statements describing what the board expects and requires. Once adopted, they continue in effect until revised or rescinded.
Regulations are the superintendent’s plan to meet the policy expectations and requirements of the board. They tell how, by whom, where, and when things are to be done. Exhibits may be developed as supporting documents. These include checklists, sample documents, forms, and other informational items to assist in implementing policies or procedures.
As long as the administration operates within the guidelines of policy adopted by the board, it may issue regulations without prior board approval unless board action is required by law or unless the board has specifically directed that certain types of regulations be submitted to the board for approval. The board should, however, be kept informed on all district regulations issued by the administration, and all regulations are subject to board review.
State and/or federal law sometimes require boards to make detailed rules, or the board may decide it is necessary to do so in some situations. The more detailed the policy, the less flexibility is available to the board and the administration.
When and how are policies developed? Policies may be required due to new or amended law, Georgia Board of Education rule, or a court decision. Suggestions or requests for policies may also come from school councils or governance teams, teachers, students, parents, administrators, or the community. The two main decisions to be made in developing policy are: what the issues are and what the boundaries are for addressing them.
This process works best when clearly defined by the local board and administration when the following are included:
- The board and administration identify the issue and collect information.
- The administration drafts the policy statement.
- The administration disseminates the draft statement to those who will be affected by it and those who will implement the policy.
- The board has a first reading of the draft policy and votes for the draft policy to lay on the table for the period of time specified in the board's policy or in accordance with the board's practice.
- The administration accepts comments on the draft policy.
- The board has a second reading of the draft policy. If problems in the draft policy have arisen or if major amendments are recommended, the board may vote to hold the policy for final adoption until a subsequent meeting.
- The board votes on the policy.
- If the vote is favorable, the policy is made available to those who are affected by it, those who are to implement it, and those who are assigned to update the policy manual.
- The policy is implemented by the administration through administrative rules and procedures.
The board periodically evaluates the policy and its implementation to determine if the desired results are being achieved. All policies must meet the requirements set out by the U.S. Constitution and federal laws, the Georgia Constitution and state laws, federal and state court rulings, Attorney General opinions, and State board rules. Within these boundaries, local boards have the flexibility to determine what the “laws” of their school system will be.
Within the legal and other practical constraints, the board should decide what the desired outcomes of the policy are. Local criteria are important, such as the mission and goals of the school district and the expectations of the community being served. Developing policies can be a tedious process as people often disagree on wording. This is a valuable exercise, however, as it helps to bring out the differences of opinion and the values certain words evoke. Working out the differences of opinion on wording is much easier than trying to work out personal differences when trouble arises.
When considering policies, these questions should be asked:
- How does the policy advance the educational interests of all students? Policies must be carefully formulated to balance the needs of all students and must not ignore the needs of any specific demographic group.
- How does this policy support the mission and goals of the district? Reviewing the policy in light of the mission statement or goals might reveal little or no correlation or even a negative correlation.
- What do current literature and research say that is relevant to the policy? Reviewing the literature and current research can point the board in productive directions. For example, if the graduation rate is an issue, the board may ask for a review of the research on effective alternative education programs.
- How is the policy related to other district policies? Since the board is bound by the policies it adopts, it is important that one policy not contradict another and that individual policies support each other. If a policy is not consistent with previous decisions, the district will need to communicate the change in philosophy.
- How consistent is compliance with the policy likely to be? High expectations are an important attribute of effective schools and the board’s expectation of compliance with policy should be high. If the board cannot reasonably expect a high degree of compliance with a policy, it should rethink the policy.
- How will the effectiveness of the policy be evaluated? The board should develop a comprehensive system to measure the effectiveness of its policies to ensure that reasonable progress is being made toward achieving policy goals.
- What external support does the policy require? The more external support is required to carry out a policy, the less control a board and administration has over compliance. Parents can be asked to help support attendance or homework policies, for example, but they can not be forced to comply.
- What will it cost in human and fiscal terms to implement the policy? Cost should not be the controlling factor in setting policy, but it is a necessary consideration. It is important to determine the cost to be able to shift the necessary human and fiscal resources from low priority items to those identified as crucially important.
- Is the policy understandable and clear? How is the policy affected by federal and state legal mandates?
Written policies foster stability and continuity. A current policy manual can ensure smooth transitions when organizational or staff changes occur. It can quickly and clearly provide answers for the staff and community. Therefore, policies should be written and published in an organized, precise, professional manner which provides members of the school board, school system staff and community with easy access. It should be made clear to the staff and public how and where the policy manual is available.
- Is it available online? If so, where?
- Is it available in a hard copy? If so, where?
- How may the public submit comments on draft policies?
- Whom should someone contact with a question about the manual?
Manuals that have obsolete policies, contradictory policies, or policies that are no longer appropriate create a culture where the policy manual is not used. This can make small problems much bigger. The policy manual is created to govern the school system, not to simply comply with the law. Whenever a legal issue arises, the first question is “What is the board’s policy?” That is why it is important to remember that a board is bound by the policies it adopts until it votes to rescind them. A change in law can make a policy obsolete, but it does not rescind it. Only the board can do that.
Written policies can also contribute to the board’s efficiency by delegating routine decisions to the superintendent and staff. These may include field trips and some purchasing decisions. This allows the board to focus on governance not minutiae.
Unwritten rules that have evolved from regular practices leave room for interpretation and inconsistent application. Unwritten policies are often practices thought of as so obvious that there is no need to write them down – until a question arises and it is suddenly clear that there is no rhyme or reason to the way the issue is being handled across the district. Inconsistency means sooner or later someone is going to feel they are being treated unfairly. Written rules make very clear the parameters of acceptable choices and bring consistency to governance.
Revising policies is an ongoing process. The legal demands placed on school boards can change quickly. It is imperative that school systems designate a staff member to continually monitor actions of the General Assembly and State Board as well as other activities which impact board policy. The Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA), through its policy workshops and publications, provides information and technical assistance to help local school systems develop, implement and evaluate local board policies.
Whenever there are changes in laws or regulations that affect the governance of schools, it is the board’s responsibility to adopt new policy or revise existing policy to meet those changes. GSBA can provide the tools to do so through such means as the sample policies in the Policy Update newsletter. It should be kept in mind that the samples are just that – samples. The intent is to provide a broad policy that any district can adapt to fit its specific needs. It is the responsibility of the board to discuss the issue and decide what its needs are. All policies should be reviewed by the board attorney prior to adoption.
When changes to a policy are needed, it is usually better to review and revise the policy in its entirety rather than editing it to incorporate the changes. Simply adding language or creating a new policy on top of what’s currently written without modifying the previous language often results in board policy that is confusing at best and contradictory at worst.
Many local boards have chosen to put their policy manuals online. This increases the accessibility of current information to everyone from the public to the staff. Giving easy access to the governing documents of the school system adds transparency to the governing process. It is also often easier to obtain public comment on draft policies when they are readily available online.
Policy Implementation and Evaluation
Once a school board has adopted a policy, it becomes the superintendent’s responsibility to implement it. The superintendent should develop administrative procedures which will ensure that the intent of the policy is achieved. Administrative procedures are detailed plans or processes which, when followed by school system personnel, will lead to the goals stated in the policy. Administrative procedures tell how, by whom, where and when activities are to be completed. They inform the staff, students, and community of the specifics of how policies will be followed and enforced.
Sometimes board members are so afraid of being accused of negligence that they insist on reviewing and approving everything. If a board puts virtually all procedures in policy, it decimates the authority of the superintendent. The board is accountable for all organizational activity but that does not mean they operate the system. The challenge is to make reasonably sure nothing major goes wrong while granting as much flexibility as possible to those who have been hired to get the work done.
In order to evaluate the effect of the policy, the board and superintendent should design a process that will document the degree of success of the policy and its implementation. The board should request periodic reports from the superintendent on the implementation of the policy. The exact reports and information the board will need to assure itself that its policies are being carried out will vary from policy to policy. If the policy does not achieve the desired results or creates additional problems, these periodic reports will alert the board. The board can then alter the policy as necessary.
Constituents generally expect elected officials to look out for their particular interests. When they have a problem, they want an immediate and personal response. It is the desire to serve these constituents that often leads board members from their role of oversight as a board to micromanaging as individuals. This is a point with which policy can be a great help. The governance role is to act collectively in open meetings in the best interest of all students and taxpayers. Individual members have no governing authority. If the organizational chart’s chain of command and the written policies are consistently enforced, the system will function as intended. If they are not, there will be miscommunication and dysfunction.
Common Mistakes To Avoid
- Failure to have the board’s attorney review a policy before adopting it.
- Failure to follow the board attorney’s advice until there is a problem.
- Failure to make clear how or if the staff, school councils or governance teams, and community are to be included in the process.
- Writing regulations into policies.
- Failure to allow the superintendent to exercise his/her authority in implementing policy.
- Failure to ensure policy manual is kept up-to-date in all formats available.
- Attempting to write policy to cover every possible occurrence.
- Adopting sample policies as presented rather than tailoring them to fit the district’s needs.
- Failure to write policies until a controversy occurs. Try to anticipate issues. It is much easier to write a fair and balanced policy when things are calm rather than “in the heat of battle”.
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