One of the fundamental responsibilities of an NJSBA policy consultant is to read and evaluate board policy manuals. This dues-based service is called the Wellness Check and consists of a chart of all the policies in your manual, with comments about the condition of each policy and a summary report that includes suggestions to improve your board policy manual.
As a new employee, my first actual assignment was to conduct a Wellness Check for a district. Back in those days, manuals were sent to us in binders with paper documents and we kept them in the order of the date received, on the bookshelf outside the administrative assistant’s station. I cracked my knuckles, reached up and dislodged the ten pound book from the shelf, embracing with tentative anxiety the task ahead. As I hauled the manual back to my desk, my hands felt this rough crud on the back of the binder. On closer inspection, I was horrified to discover that the crud was actually the veneer from the shelf the manual had been sitting on at the district all these long years. I thought to myself: “This is going to be a hard job.”
When I try to convince board members to open their manual and get acquainted with their policies, I frequently get an apprehensive look that makes me feel like I have just assigned them to read the “Monster Book of Monsters” from the Harry Potter series. It is a sad fact, but school policy manuals are very long.
Education in New Jersey is highly regulated and even though the NJSBA takes a “less-is-more” approach to policy, our model manual has 190 documents and is more than 500 pages long. This is the legal minimum in the most concise policy system available in New Jersey. Needless to say, there is a lot for board members to know.
We understand that it is overwhelming; however, policy development, review, revision and repeal are essential board responsibilities. The board is directed by law to “make, amend and repeal rules…for the government and management of the public schools.” The courts have interpreted the phrase “make, amend and repeal rules” to mean that policy is the board’s legal responsibility. Knowing the rules is also important because the board member’s indemnification against liability extends only as far as member’s conduct is in compliance with policy.
While your board may be too busy to embark upon a total manual update, it is never too late to start updating the manual’s content as laws are enacted or revised. NJSBA announces policy developments in School Board Notes and maintains a Policy Update List on the Policy page of staging.njsba.org for boards to access model policy language that is updated as laws change. There are also policy services that provide updates. Whether using your dues-based resources or receiving updates from a vendor the board is still responsible to review, tailor and adopt the language so that the final policy is accurate to the unique operation of the district or school.
Over the years, members of the NJSBA policy staff have read hundreds of manuals sent to us for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps the district is scheduled for state monitoring; maybe there is a new administrator who wants to get an idea of how current the manual is; or perhaps someone has simply noticed that the corners of the pages are starting to crumble and takes this as evidence that the manual may be out of date. Having reviewed so many manuals, we find recurring problems with the policy manuals of New Jersey schools. Many of the problems that give your policy consultants red eyes can be corrected with common sense and minimal effort.
Fill in the Blanks and Select the Options
Often policies require the district to select among a few options, and to literally fill in a blank to make the policy relevant to a specific district. Seeing blanks in a policy where there should be information is nearly the scariest problem of all because it begs the question: “Did anyone look at this before putting it in the manual?” Often blanks indicate that a staff position like the superintendent or the principal needs to be responsible for the requirement. When the options are not selected, you can create conflicting rules. For example in NJSBA model policy 5136 on Student Fundraising, the board needs to determine if door-to-door solicitation is prohibited or allowed. When a board keeps both statements in the policy it is confusing and leaves the issue open to individual interpretation.
Notes and Directions
Notes and directions in sample policies are there to help the board member customize the document. They should be read and considered but they are not part of the policy and should be removed.
If you do not have the program, you do not need a policy. I reviewed a manual from a K-6 district that had a policy on military recruitment. I don’t think the military is taking them that young yet. Other common examples are safety patrol, preschool, electronic surveillance or district-owned vehicles. Just because a policy update or new policy is posted does not mean that it is the right policy for your district or school. If you do not have a program, then most likely you do not need a policy on it.
There are more subtle revisions and edits that also should be made when your board reviews updates and new policies. Most policy services, including the NJSBA services, do generic updates that apply to grades K-12. References to adult students and high school requirements may be edited out if you only operate an elementary school program. Likewise rules specific to pre-school and K-8 requirements may be edited out for high school districts. Some changes in education law may not apply to your situation at all.
The most common mistakes that I read usually fray the boundaries between conduct expectations and student and staff rights. For example: 24/7 policies that restrict student conduct outside of school can be problematic when there is not a clear connection between the behavioral violation being disciplined and disruption to the school program; while pregnant student policies that require a pregnant student to submit to a physical examination as a prerequisite for participation in the instructional program are discriminatory. The laws regarding personal rights and freedom of speech can be tricky. To prevent potential conflicts with law, the board should consider using the NJSBA legal and policy departments in the development of policy and have all new and revised policies reviewed by their board attorney before the final adoption vote.
No Policy History
When a policy is added, revised, or reviewed by the board, the board should vote to accept the change to the manual. After the change is accepted, the policy should be marked with the adoption, revision or review date. By recording the date of the change’s adoption on the policy, the board can save time searching the board minutes for the adoption resolution when a policy issue arises. The adoption date gives the reader a frame of reference for when the policy was last reviewed. When I read an undated policy, I wonder if the board ever saw the policy. If the board cannot prove the policy was adopted, then it probably will not stand up to a challenge.
Multiple Policy Versions and Content Redundancies
Multiple policy versions can occur when the board does not realize that they have an existing policy on the topic and then adopts a whole new policy leaving the older version in the manual. Before you add anything to a district manual, you should first locate and review all the related policies. Oftentimes these related documents can also be updated, consolidated, or even repealed if they are no longer necessary or inconsistent with the current law. If you have an existing policy, the revised or updated version should replace the older version. Board members tend to be very busy people. Creating quick reference tools like an accurate table of contents and policy cross references can reduce time searching through large documents. Publishing a searchable version of the manual online with a decent search engine can also make finding documents easier.
I have also read manuals that contain an archive of all the policy revisions the board has adopted over the years. It is important to separate your policy work archives from the master district manual. All publicly elected officials and school leaders are expected to be accountable, so archiving and tracking your policy work resonates with a board’s duty to be transparent in the leadership of the district. When a board keeps the work documents and past versions in the manual, the manual gains weight, gets longer and becomes unmanageable. Which policy applies in a given situation can also become muddled.
Content redundancies, where a topic is covered over and over again in multiple policies and in multiple chapters, contribute to a manual’s obesity. These redundancies can be overlooked in the updating and revising process causing conflicting rules. Again, the issue of which rule applies can become confusing.
Bad language can take many forms but for the purpose of a clear policy, it consists of text which is difficult to understand and must be read numerous times to derive the meaning or is altogether incomprehensible to the reader. I find legalese particularly annoying. Here is a perfect example from the policies of one New Jersey district:
An account in the name of the Somewhere High School Cafeteria Account shall be maintained in a designated school bank for the deposit in said bank to the credit of this account from time to time of any and all monies. Payment from the funds on deposit by check signed by the president, custodian of funds, and board secretary is authorized.
What does that mean? It means that the district is going to create a cafeteria account and authorize certain people to make payments from the account. This statement may be legal but it is confusing and hard to read.
Paragraphs that refer to and/or end in legal citations leave the reader hanging:
The district will comply with the requirements of N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.2 and 7.3, in addition to all the procedural protections set forth in N.J.A.C. 6A:14, for each pupil with a disability who is subject to a short-term or long-term suspension.
Policies are public documents and many of the potential readers out there are regular people who may not know that N.J.A.C. 6A stands for the Department of Education regulations. If you were the parent of a student classified with a disability, and your son or daughter was suspended from school, how helpful would you find this policy statement?
Clear writing is an art and no one does it perfectly. It is a best practice to keep things simple. Break up compound sentences, use the simplest vocabulary possible, and as my former co-worker David Bosted always advised: You cannot go wrong with the “subject, verb, object” sentence structure.
An entire manual is overwhelming but it is nothing more than the sum of its parts. Applying some common sense strategies and perseverance can go a long way to making this important board document understandable not only to the board members but to the school community. Taking the time to check your policies on the issues that are listed on the board agenda, reviewing updates and revisions as they are presented for board adoption and scanning the table of contents for other related polices will familiarize you with the book a little at a time and help keep your policies up-to-date and accurate.
Finally, if you get stuck, cannot find a policy or have trouble understanding what you are reading, ask for help. You will always find the NJSBA policy staff ready and willing to provide model policy samples, research and suggestions regardless of the manual system you use.