The school board strikes back

Karen Gray

For more than a decade, the Clark County school board has celebrated the board’s use of Policy Governance®, the board leadership paradigm created and taught by Dr. John Carver.

Under the Policy Governance® paradigm, the board gives the superintendent broadly written policies describing the outcomes the board expects and describing actions to be avoided by the superintendent in achieving those outcomes. The superintendent is allowed to use any reasonable interpretation of those policies. Further, the superintendent is then authorized to “establish all further policies, make all decisions, take all actions, establish all practices, and develop all activities.”

At its work session tomorrow, however, the board may amend those teachings — contradicting years of Dr. Carver’s training — to limit the autonomy of Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones.

Under Policy Governance®, a board’s focus is on major policy and long-term impacts, not the administrative or programmatic means of attaining those goals. In this way, the board maintains a clear distinction between its role and that of the superintendent.

Now that CCSD has a new superintendent pushing for genuine education reforms, however, trustees appear to be signaling a major change of heart.

Former superintendent Walt Rulffes, whom the board often praised for his work, enjoyed the flexibility of providing trustees any reasonable interpretation of their broad policies and choosing the very data that would support his claims of reasonableness. Indeed, after new data arrived, Rulffes was allowed to revise his interpretation to align with the new data.

So if you wonder to what extent CCSD trustees support this new superintendent they just hired, you can probably get a pretty good idea by examining how much leeway they give him.

In that light, new moves to hobble Superintendent Dwight Jones strongly suggest this board — or interests behind it — harbor some serious hostility toward the reforms Jones is pursuing.

Last month, when Jones laid out phase one of his plan for CCSD, he provided trustees with a chart that aligned his initiatives with the outcomes and restraints already endorsed by existing board policies. But some board members are now making it quite clear that they want to change the rules.

In 2006, Dr. John Carver spent days helping the school board take what are now its current policies to the broadest, furthest levels. According to the training discussion Carver led, when a board gets into the deeper details, it begins to micromanage. And micromanagement is a clear violation of board-superintendent roles under Policy Governance®.

Broadly written policies, according to Carver, are “far, far more important” than how the board gets into the details. Of course, theoretically, the board can wade far deeper into policy to control the superintendent’s actions. However, the crux of Carver’s training advised against it. Point one, says Carver, is that the board stay precisely at the broadest level of policy.

And yet, when Dr. Miriam Carver, John Carver’s wife and co-founder of Policy Governance®, was in Las Vegas in March, conducting her training session for the board, she was emphasizing ways the board could limit the superintendent’s actions. Digging down deeper into policy layers, she explained, could put additional restraints on a superintendent.

“The rule is,” advised Dr. Miriam Carver, “you go into as much into detail as it takes to allow the board to accept any reasonable CEO interpretation.”

In some ways, therefore, Policy Governance® appears to be a prescription that justifies whatever a board — a client — wants to do.

And on that front, CCSD board President Carolyn Edwards has thrown down the gauntlet.

In late June, at the next school board meeting following Jones’ presentation of the guide, Edwards immediately set the ball rolling to rein in Jones’ authority.

When Jones submitted monitoring financial reports prepared by staff to allow the board to do a final evaluation of Rulffes, Edwards advised other board members that their role, upon receiving such a report, was to examine how the superintendent had interpreted the board’s policies.

They should ask themselves, she said, “Is that what we meant by that policy?” Finding issues with how Jones had interpreted the board policy being monitored, Edwards wanted trustees to critique his interpretation.

Trustee Deanna Wright — who, along with Edwards, had met with Jones earlier — volunteered her concerns that interpretations the board received were not what board members had meant. She said she had struggled for years with the interpretations received, thinking they did not reflect the board’s intent. Of course, Wright had not raised her concern until now.

But how important is it, really, if Jones’ interpretation differs from what the board meant? According to Dr. John Carver, as long as the superintendent has supported his interpretation with data, it is a reasonable interpretation. The board, says Carver, might not get what it wants.

“You look at it [superintendent’s interpretation] and say, ‘it may look reasonable to you [superintendent], but it’s not to me,’ or, you say, ‘Okay, it’s not what I would have chosen; that’s not what I meant.’ But, what I would have chosen and what I meant are absolutely, totally irrelevant,” if the interpretation was proven, said Carver.

Jones, at least, had clarity on the matter: Policy is what the board makes, and reasonable interpretation of that policy is what the superintendent does.

“The trustees really don’t say ‘we agree, we disagree with your interpretation,'” he responded to Edwards. “The interpretation is my own and the trustees actually work on the rule.”

Seemingly, John Carver couldn’t even argue with that.

Carver has also said, frankly, that it’s not the job of the board to help with the interpretation: “What happens is you pass the policy…,” he advised trustees. “But, the superintendent’s next step is to interpret the policy. Now, he doesn’t need you for that and you should keep your mouth shut about that…”

Furthermore, even if the interpretation was not what the board wanted, but it was what the board’s policy words asked for, then, says Carver, the board needs to firm up its policy.

Edwards, however, didn’t skip a beat.

In what she characterized as “good clarification,” Edwards lectured Jones in no uncertain terms — at times eliciting uncomfortable laughter from the dais, shock and stirring from the audience, and even a groan or growl from other trustees on the dais:

I agree that your interpretation is your interpretation, but it is of our intent, um — Yes! It is — and, it’s of our policy. And, so, if we do not agree with your interpretation, it implies that we need to change our policy.

And, so there are consequences if we don’t agree with your interpretation. And those consequences are, we’ll tighten our policy…

So, then you either agree — maybe you change your interpretation — or, you don’t. And then we change our policy…

But, if it comes down to, you believe your interpretation is absolutely your interpretation and you’re sticking by it, and, we want something different, the way we get that is through a joint — a board level, seven people coming to a new policy discussion.

Whether we loosen it up or tighten it down — either way.

Edwards in the past has publicly claimed trustees changed policy in light of Rulffes’ interpretations. And at this June board meeting she asserted that Rulffes changed his interpretation at board urging. On each occasion, NPRI requested that such changes be identified for the record. Those requests have gone unanswered.

So Edwards has thrown down the gauntlet.

Tomorrow, the school board meets at 8 a.m. for a work session. Agenda items 2.02, 2.03, 2.04 and 2.05 relate to Policy Governance®.