‘It makes us all look ridiculous’

Karen Gray

Did the Clark County School Board 10 years ago abandon its own authority?

For a decade, the board has stiff-armed critics of Policy Governance®, the peculiar, trademarked governing model under which the board can do no more than pass general written policies, to which the district superintendent can then apply any reasonable interpretation he chooses.

Beyond those general principles, the superintendent is then "authorized to establish all further policies, make all decisions, take all actions, establish all practices, and develop all activities."

Critics have long argued that Policy Governance gives too much authority to the superintendent while providing little accountability in return, and amounts to trustees abdicating their responsibilities as public stewards.

Trustees, on the other hand, contend that Policy Governance increases accountability to the board through monitoring reports, while keeping the board from getting caught up in day-to-day operations.

"Before [Policy Governance], we debated the kind of quality of flooring," said Trustee Sheila Moulton in an April presentation on the subject. "We spent a lot of time talking about the color of tiles. I remember discussing, clearly, what kind of carpet we were going to put in."

After 10 years of the trustees distancing themselves from district operations, the public can rest assured trustees will no longer spend time debating the color of tile. Indeed, it now appears that trustees are so accustomed to relinquishing decisions to the superintendent that they don't even inspect contracts before signing them.

Recently, trustees received public criticism and what amounts to an implicit scolding from legislators for approving approximately $100,000 in additional benefits for Clark County's top five ranking employees during the current deep recession while also calling for "shared sacrifice." Then it was revealed trustees never even looked at the employee contracts prior to approving them.

"There were things that happened with those contracts. To be honest with you, I never saw any of them. There was never any calculation," Trustee Linda Young announced some weeks ago when calling for a reconsideration of the contracts.

That request sparked heated discussion among trustees and produced a subsequent agenda item. However, not once did trustees defend themselves by asserting they had read the contracts or calculations before voting.

Instead, trustees adopted a motion whereby henceforth "everything is on paper" and trustees "see every piece of paper" when considering contracts for the top five confidential employees.

Trustee Carolyn Edwards moved that "the current contract for those employees be presented in full with the monetary costs of that contract and that any proposed change include the monetary change so that all benefits or reductions are fully known."

To most people, exercising such oversight would seem an obvious part of trustees' fiduciary responsibilities. It is an index of the bizarre nature of Policy Governance as exercised on the Clark County School Board, however, that — after 10 years — the board still had no such formal responsibility.

Indeed, once the board's non-existent role in the district's contract process was revealed publicly, the motion from Edwards — a long-time supporter of Policy Governance and a candidate for re-election in November — could be seen as something of an image-salvaging operation.

Another oddity of Policy Governance, however, is that merely approving a process of actually looking at contracts and monetary impacts before blessing them does not, under Policy Governance, mean much. By design, Policy Governance requires the board to put any process into explicit policy language for it to become binding on trustees and the superintendent. Thus, until Edwards' motion amends the specific, numbered policy, trustees are under no more requirement than before they first failed to review any information.

Governance Policies, otherwise known as GPs, are the policies "governing how the board operates," and, "[t]he process by which the Board explicitly describes the standards of group and individual behavior to which it agrees to hold itself." Currently, GPs dictate board processes from agenda construction to policy development.

When the board finds the superintendent — or the board, itself — has acted contrary to the board's intent, the board must amend, adopt or repeal board policy to give new instruction.

For example, after Clark County School District Superintendent Walt Rulffes in March unilaterally suspended a school district policy to convert 12-month schools to nine months, trustees eventually revised policy GP3 to require that any waiver of school district policies or regulations be approved by the board. 

"I was alarmed," explained Edwards in a recent phone interview. "If the board is going to approve school district policies, then the board should be the one to waive them. I don't want that to be implied. I want it to be explicit."

Despite Edwards' recent efforts to reclaim some authority, last week's school board meeting and recent events continue to show just how far removed the school board is from district operations.

At the meeting, members of the public voiced dismay over consent agenda items seeking "board approval" of 13 contracts, totaling over $22.5 million. Then it was revealed that the so-called "board approval" being sought was entirely spurious, because those contracts were already "in the works," and done under the authority of Superintendent Rulffes and, to some degree, were "already contractual."

But there was more.

Also on the consent agenda was an item supposedly seeking board "authorization to submit" an application for a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) Validation Grant, to be used for the district's empowerment program.

As back-up information, staff included a four-page summary of the grant's goals and budget estimate. The details ignited debate among trustees.

Trustees Edwards and Moulton saw the grant as a policy issue since among its goals was increasing the number of empowerment schools to 123 and increasing school-site budget control from 50 to 74 percent.

Trustee Young, however, argued that while the philosophical aspects of empowerment schools are a board policy issue, the grant was really about funding and implementing the empowerment program — and was, thus, an operational issue.

When Rulffes then revealed that the grant had already been submitted, that sparked a parliamentary motion to approve the grant's submission with the understanding that Rulffes would create an operational procedure allowing board input in future applications.

Rulffes then advised the board that this would constitute a policy shift regarding grant development, to which Edwards responded that trustees should at least be "informed" (a requirement under Policy Governance). To which Rulffes replied: "That's the purpose of this item."

The board's disconnect was not lost on the audience — or even some trustees.

"We need to know it before," Wright admonished. "We can't vote on something if it's already been postmarked and off to the IRS or the government. That makes us all look really ridiculous, and, I'm frustrated that it happens to us time and time again." (Emphasis added.)

Wright and Edwards are right. Board approval should mean something. However, Edwards' own explanation of Policy Governance, just a few weeks ago, noted that "informed" does not mean "included in the decision-making."

"We're trying to hold the superintendent much more highly accountable with this system," Edwards explained at the time. "And, if we tell him how to do everything, then we can hardly hold him accountable for the decisions we make about what he's doing, if we're telling him how to do it."

She acknowledged Rulffes doesn't have to consult the board, but sometimes does. "He came to the board and asked about, do we want to continue with empowerment schools, and, the board gave direction, yes we do … but, we give him the freedom to bring those things to us." (Emphasis added.)

Perhaps the relative authority of superintendent and trustees would be better understood publicly if similar agenda items in the future called for "ratification" rather than "approval."

The consent agenda wasn't alone in spotlighting the board's lack of knowledge.

Just a week earlier, the school district filed a counter-complaint against the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees (administrators union) in a pending Employee-Management Relations Board litigation. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, school board President Terri Janison was not aware that, on behalf of the Board of Trustees, the lawsuit had been filed, nor that a law firm had been hired at an hourly rate of $250.

Given the rapidly growing hole in CCSD's operations budget, public speakers at the meeting criticized the board for its ignorance regarding the expensive contract to defend the school board after giving perks to some employees while others were being reduced in force.

So, yes, Trustee Wright is correct: The board does look ridiculous. However, it's not because staff postmarked and mailed a grant request before informing the board. Rather, it is because the board insists on a system that calls for precisely that — while making trustees little more than rubber stamps.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org/.