In anticipation of nicer weather, many people will be thinking about getting their flower beds and gardens cleaned up and ready for the season. For school trustees, it is also a good time to think about tending to your policy gardens – from the ground up.
The garden metaphor risks making light of the critical role of board policy, and that would be a serious error. It is a board’s most important governance tool. Unfortunately, it is also an area of board work that is at risk of being insufficiently planned and assessed.
Policies are organisational statements that translate a board’s vision, priorities and values into action. Indeed, they are the legal way in which boards fulfil their responsibilities as mandated by their provincial School Acts, and as such, have the force of law binding the board and district staff to specific actions and expectations. But to be effective, policies must not only be well-written individual statements but also exist as a coherent, consistent and monitored body of work overall.
The development of individual policies is usually not an issue for boards. Most will have the support of their Superintendent, Secretary Treasurer and provincial association to ensure that their policies are properly researched and wisely crafted. After careful review and debate boards endeavour to pass policies that are in the best interests of students and the school district as a whole.
However, a board’s work is not finished once the policy has been passed, and this is often the larger challenge for some boards. Although it is the responsibility of the Superintendent to make sure that policies are communicated and enacted throughout the system, it is the board’s responsibility to ensure that they remain effective and relevant. While some policies are foundational or statutorily required many are developed in response to contingencies that arise throughout the year. As the years go by the policy manual can become an unwieldy collection of responses, some of which may no longer be relevant or are not organised in a coherent and useful manner. A quick review of British Columbia school district manuals showed a range of 33 to 347 individual policies. Some manuals are well organised and accessible, while others are less so. Some contain policies that are highly prescriptive, blurring the line between policy and administrative regulations. Another issue is whether the board – through the superintendent – knows whether its policies are active at the school level. This is a particularly important for policies related to student achievement and safety.
School boards generally have well-established processes for developing and monitoring the key areas of the district’s achievement levels and budgets. As boards start to prepare for their annual self-review and strategic planning exercises this would be an excellent time to include questions related to policy development and monitoring. Plan the garden, prepare the soil and pull those weeds!