LAS VEGAS — For more than a decade the Clark County school board has governed under Policy Governance® — the trademarked governance paradigm that Drs. John and Miriam Carver promote and for which they sell training services.
However, for nearly just as long, CCSD trustees’ allegiance to the paradigm has drawn fire. Critics asserted that trustees too often have used it to evade their responsibilities, avoid accountability and disempower their constituents.
What allows such charges is the fact that the Carvers’ approach hinges upon separating “issues of organizational purpose (ENDS) from all other organizational issues (MEANS).”
This means, according to the Carvers’ website, that “Policy Governance boards demand accomplishment of purpose, and only limit the staff's available means to those which do not violate the board's pre-stated standards of prudence and ethics.” (Emphasis added.)
Policy Governance® thus imposes separate and distinct roles on both trustees and staff.
Nevada’s term-limits laws eventually eliminated from the CCSD school board the trustees who first embraced Policy Governance®. But remaining trustees continued to sing the praises of the governing approach and brought three freshman trustees — Deanna Wright, Chris Garvey and Linda Young — into the consensus, also.
Current board President Carolyn Edwards, the board’s longest-serving member, often expressed her confidence that Policy Governance® was a way to hold the superintendent “much more accountable.”
In 2009, discussing the evaluation of former superintendent Walt Rulffes, Edwards declared: “I feel strongly that [the] monitoring reports have been evaluated fully by the board and that it is the best of our abilities….”
Therefore, she indicated, she was not inclined to go back and reevaluate what the board had already accepted as superintendent compliance.
Last year, Edwards even pursued the chance to present before the International Policy Governance Association on the topic of how Policy Governance® can be used successfully by elected, non-profit boards.
“If [the $300 membership fee] is a stumbling block for anybody,” Edwards told her fellow trustees, “I would be willing to pay that out of my travel money.”
The board approved the IPGA membership fee and Edwards gave her presentation that summer.
Increasingly, however, veteran trustees sound more like their Policy Governance® critics than the dedicated practitioners they were last year.
This summer, as trustees reviewed Superintendent Dwight Jones’ first annual “executive limitation” financial monitoring reports, as required under Policy Governance®, Trustee Wright announced that she has “struggled, my years on the board, with the superintendents’ interpretations” of the policies spelled out by the board.
“I have felt in other monitoring reports,” she said, “that they were just a restatement of what was already there — not necessarily the interpretation the superintendent was gleaning from the policy.”
Board President Edwards, too — long back from her presentation at the International Policy Governance Association on how boards like CCSD’s can achieve success with Policy Governance® — now sounds grumpy.
Finding issues with how Jones had interpreted the board policies on those financial monitoring reports, Edwards wanted trustees to critique his interpretation.
She advised other board members that their role, upon receiving such a report, was to examine how the superintendent had interpreted the board's policies.
The board members should ask themselves, she said: "Is that what we meant by that policy?"
Then, in September, after trustees failed to evaluate the board’s intent in Jones’ interpretations for recently submitted monitoring reports, Edwards complained to Bill Charney, the board’s new Policy Governance consultant, a few days later during a governance training retreat.
“I don’t think this board now does a good job of assessing the superintendent and holding him accountable,” Edwards told Charney. “Nor do I think any previous board has,” she asserted.
“We had three monitoring reports Thursday night,” Edwards used as an example. “There was hardly any discussion about the interpretation. I was astonished because that’s how we hold [Jones] accountable.”
So, has the school board finally seen what its critics have been arguing for years?
Such discussions, regarding superintendent interpretations, have apparently never been custom or practice at the Clark County school board.
Indeed, a review of board conversations during the monitoring reports for 2009 and 2010, when most members on the current board were serving, reveals that former Superintendent Walt Rulffes turned in 20 monitoring reports with 130 interpretations.
Not once did the board ask, “Is that what we meant by that policy?"
Perhaps that’s because John Carver told trustees in 2006 that their role was to “pass the policy," while it was “the superintendent's next step to interpret the policy.” And about that, the board “should keep [their] mouth shut...”
This October, trustees discussed new feelings about Policy Governance®.
“Policy Governance, the structure as it was set from the Carvers, doesn’t really work for us because we’re not a GE or a Disney or a Verizon Wireless,” said Wright. “We’re an elected board that has constituents that need to speak to us….”
“It puts one in a very uncomfortable space,” agreed Trustee Chris Garvey, who said that her constituents, too, feel they do not get the kind of response they expect.
Trustee Young, often critical of the constraints imposed by Policy Governance, said she gets “a little perturbed” that the paradigm accepted by the board for so many years puts her “in this box,” when she can be a resource.
“I want to be effective as a trustee,” she said. “I want the people, my constituents to see me as effective. When they call me, I can pass the ball … and do my part.”
Garvey expressed the consensus: “I don’t think I’m ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But I would like to see continued discussions and involvement.”
While not ready to toss out the baby, trustees are ready to “shape it” and “mold it” to meet their needs.
“I’m OK with Policy Governance,” said Wright, “to the point that we can still continue to shape it in the way that we need to, to be responsive to parents….”
Edwards advised trustees that they should view Policy Governance® as merely an instrument, one which can be modified to meet their needs.
“Policy Governance is simply a tool,” said Edwards. “It is not the end of anything.”
“I think there’s a perception that it can’t be modified to meet our needs, but I think it can be modified to meet our needs,” she elaborated. “Bill Charney said that very clearly.”
Taking a “slightly different view,” newly appointed trustee John Cole, who too stated he had some issues with Policy Governance®, cautioned that Superintendent Jones needs leeway to get things done and trustees should be careful not to wind things too tightly.
“Right now,” said Cole, “I want [Jones] to have the open field to run in, as far as he needs to go, to bring the changes we all know this district needs at this point and time.”
“Let’s also keep in mind,” Cole said later, addressing a description by Edwards of how the board could fail, “that if this is too tight, that’s another definition of how we can fail.”