Is school board delegating responsibility?

The South Kitsap School District board of directors is in the midst of examining its own role as representatives of the “owners” of the school district, namely the citizens living within its boundaries.

“Policy governance” is the model being used in an effort to define the ends desired by the board and establish methods to determine whether those ends are being achieved.

Since SKSD must periodically ask the owners to approve local property tax levies that fund a substantial part of the district’s costs, focusing on representing the owners rather than the staff, faculty and students could be a good thing.

Of course, policy governance is a novel idea for most of us, so there is a risk that this whole process could go haywire if people misunderstand what is involved.

It’s nice to think that the result could be an organization that focuses on the owners’ interests and holds staff and faculty responsible for achieving the chosen ends.

But it’s a little scary to think that our elected members of the board of directors could be muzzled or hobbled by the new governance model.

With the responsibility to achieve the chosen ends there is also a delegation of authority to staff and faculty to choose the means that will be used to achieve the ends.

There would still be limitations on the exercise of this delegated authority, but the idea is to state what means are not acceptable rather than micromanaging by approving or rejecting the staff’s proposed means.

And there are supposed to be ways to measure whether the means are accomplishing the ends, so that a change of means is possible before it becomes obvious to even casual observers that things aren’t working as planned.

Children only experience one first day of school, and no one can turn back the clock for a “do over” when the school year ends and it is clear that something wasn’t working as expected.

Unfortunately, it is also true that no one knows a perfect way to provide all children the best opportunity to gain a good education.

We have to accept that no one is perfect, so the idea is to identify the imperfections as early as possible and try to correct them.

There are aspects of the policy governance model that may be perceived as limiting the ability of board members to point out and seek solutions to apparent problems.

For example, the board is to take action as a group, not as individuals. Unless some policy adopted by the majority of the board vests authority in a member to act, individual members don’t take action on their own.

Anyone who worries that the majority can be wrong would also worry that an individual member of the board may be right — and any necessary correction must start with that member’s actions.

It will be important to make clear what actions individual board members can take without causing a backlash against a member for breaking rules adopted by the majority.

Saying that only the board as a group can give directions to the superintendent should be an easy thing to state clearly.

And it seems like a good principle to guide the board members, since the idea of holding open public meetings is to make it possible for the public to learn what is being done.

If it were permissible for a board member to direct the superintendent in a one-on-one meeting out of the public’s view, the public and the other board members could be cut out of important decisions.

Providing avenues for individual board members to ask questions and express concerns is just as important for the sake of the organization’s effectiveness and the public’s confidence.

A typical policy governance principle is that board members will not publicly express negative judgments about the performance of the superintendent or staff.

That’s fine, but there must be ways that we all know and accept for members to express concerns that the means chosen by the superintendent or staff aren’t the best.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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