Each year when we conduct the policy portion of NJSBA’s New Board Member Orientation, we encounter an enthusiastic and large show of hands in response to the question: Who among you has been assigned to the policy committee?
Many of these new members express varying degrees of concern ranging from uncertainty to fear about what they have agreed to in accepting the appointment to the policy committee.
Once they are in possession of the district policy manual, it doesn’t take long to realize the weight of the responsibility. The “weight” figuratively refers to the importance of policy to sound district operations, and literally refers to the size of district manuals, which sometimes exceed 10 pounds.
Serving on your district’s policy committee is an important job. So, thank you to all enthusiastic new board members and the faithful policy wonks out there for contributing their time and expertise to the cause.
We hope that the information below helps clarify the role and responsibilities of the member and the policy committee – and helps assuage any uncertainty and fear committee members may have.
Who should be appointed to a policy committee? It is usually the board president’s responsibility to appoint committee members and committee chairpersons (see policy # 9121, “Duties of the President”). At a minimum, appointees to any committee should demonstrate an interest in and a willingness to participate on the committee. Most board presidents try to determine if individual board members have skill sets that match the subject area and encourage members to participate on committees related to their area of expertise.
Many board presidents appoint new members to the policy committee because they want the member to become familiar with the policy manual. The policy committee is different from other committees because policy drives every aspect of school and board operations and overlaps with all the subject area committees. This allows new board members to gain experience in all the different board oversight areas. When new members are placed on the policy committee, it is important to include seasoned board members on the committee to help train and mentor the new members in the committee process.
One district sample regulation from the NJSBA Policy Clearinghouse takes a different approach and requires the chairpersons of the subject area committees (i.e. personnel, finance, curriculum, etc.) to serve on the policy committee. This approach is interesting because it recognizes that policy review and development is a function that necessitates interaction and input from all the other standing committees. By placing the chairpersons on the policy committee, work on subject-related policies for finance, curriculum, negotiations etc. is divided up and channeled to the subject area for review and recommendations.
What should a policy committee do? Committee charges differ from district to district. Reviewing and/or formulating the committee charges at the beginning of the committee calendar is a good way to focus the group and set up a structure for a productive year. In general, most policy committee charges include the following duties:
• Review recommended board action on those policies not specifically in the purview of another board standing committee;
• Oversee the review of all policies in the board-adopted policy manual on a continuing basis;
• Evaluate suggestions for board policy that come from board members and the public. The committee may recommend development of policies for adoption;
• In consultation with the superintendent and the administration, establish priorities for policy review and adoption, and set review goals and schedules.
How does the policy committee determine the priorities? The NJSBA Critical Policy Reference Manual (CPRM) policy # 9311, “Formulation, Adoption, Amendment of Policies” states, “In order to ensure that the total policy process is implemented effectively, the board appoints the superintendent as policy coordinator.”
One of the most important functions of the policy committee is to work cooperatively with the superintendent regarding setting policy priorities and determining the committee agenda. The position of superintendent requires extensive training, experience and education to qualify for state certification. Aside from the knowledge and training that are prerequisite to the position, the superintendent represents the hub of information and communication between the board, the state Department of Education, the staff and the school community. The role of superintendent in all aspects of the school program, position him or her at the frontline for evaluating the effectiveness and identifying the problems with policy implementation.
One of the top priorities is to ensure that policy is in compliance with state and federal laws and regulations. Policy committee members can help the superintendent keep tabs on compliance updates by reading School Board Notes and visiting the policy page of staging.njsba.org. NJSBA maintains a model policy manual (the CPRM) that is updated as laws change. These changes and sample updates can be obtained through the Policy Update List, which is linked directly to the CPRM.
Updates that are required by law normally do not involve a great deal of controversy or negotiation because the board is legally obligated to comply with the law. These updates however, still require board review, attorney review and must be adopted into practice.
How do policy committee members enact policy changes that are discretionary and not legally required? Discretionary policies are district-specific policies that communicate the board’s position on practices that are not specifically regulated by the law. Some good examples are school dress code policy, school recycling policy and policy for live animals in the classroom.
Again, priorities for policy amendment and development must be set in consultation with the superintendent. The superintendent is responsible for the operation of the educational program and the implementation of board policy and is therefore in a position to determine and recommend important policy priorities that include:
- Updating district policies that are inconsistent with the current district practices;
- Identifying district policies for revision that are unclear and create confusion about how to handle a situation;
- Informing the committee of problems that arise for which no policy exists, necessitating the need for policy development;
- Developing policy that reflects new district initiatives and programs.
These policy priorities may involve research to determine how best to change or amend the district position. It is important to remember that the legal and policy consulting services at NJSBA can be very helpful for exploring different approaches, researching topics and evaluating the pros and cons for taking a position.
Recently a district contacted NJSBA policy services regarding the participation of home-schooled children on school athletic teams. Districts are not required by law to allow home-schooled children to participate in school activities. Because of this, it can be a controversial topic for the school community – at issue is the right of families of home-schoolers to receive some benefit from the taxes they pay, versus the principle that children who attend the school should be given priority. Policy development in this area requires the board to take a position – the board will allow it or the board will only provide the services required by law. The work of the policy committee in this case might include investigating the different arguments, polling the school community to assess their preferences, investigating what other neighboring districts are doing and collecting different samples for each side of the argument. The policy committee may even enlist the committee assigned to student activities for input, research and recommendations.
Even though discretionary policies are not required by law, they may have legal implications and liability issues. Redeveloped and newly developed policies should be submitted to your board attorney for review prior to recommending the changes to the board for approval.
How do board and administrator relationships affect policy development? The decision to accept a proposed change to an existing policy or operate with a new policy requires consensus. Updates to the policy content and/or new policies including legally required language must be voted on and adopted by a simple majority vote of the board. Some district board policies even require a majority vote of the full board to amend a bylaw for changes in board operation (the NJSBA model policy on bylaws at file code # 9312 requires a simple majority vote).
It may be surprising but board members sometimes have different opinions on what the district should do. Even more shocking, board members sometimes disagree with the superintendent.
The policy committee is instrumental in assessing the information and developing a recommendation based on the facts that are explored. A well-researched argument supported by evidence is a very valuable tool in winning the debate and commanding the consensus. Working with other subject-area committees develops more support for recommendations when the two committees agree on the recommendations. Additionally, board members who vote in opposition to facts and evidence can run the risk of damaging their public image and appearing arbitrary or motivated by self-interest. Voting for self-interest is also a violation of the Board Member Code of Ethics (file code # 9271).
Individual board members and even administrators may stand on different sides of an issue from time to time. However, constant conflict and disagreement among board members as well as frequent disagreement between the superintendent and the board can reduce the public’s confidence in the board’s ability to work toward a common goal.
Good board policy provides direction and continuity for the educational process in your district. The work of a policy committee also forms a type of legacy for the district. Long after individual board members are gone, policy drafted or updated can help set the course for a district. There a few jobs on a board more important than that of the policy committee.