Good governance requires good policy. A Christian school that has good governance will, of necessity, have good policy. Failure in governance is often related to a policy failure. This is not to say that policy is enough—it isn’t. Without it, though, good leadership gets distracted, plans get sidetracked, and resources get squandered.
The way policies typically fail is that they don’t do what they are designed to do. If a school has a policy on whom they serve (such as covenantal or more missional) and don’t follow that, the policy is ineffective and doesn’t serve the mission of the organization. Similarly, if work-arounds are developed because a policy proves cumbersome, then the policy is ineffective.
For example, a school may have a policy that only the board can expel a student. This seems like a policy that may have sound reasoning behind it. But if the head of school never invokes this course of action and instead works with families to withdraw, is it really an effective policy? Maybe a better course of action by the board is to consider the intentions of that policy and develop guidelines on when the head of school can make such a decision.
“Good policies define, empower, and constrain. A policy that does none of these things isn’t really a policy.”
Another example is a board committee structure. In practice, some committees are merely rubber stamps for administration plans. Instead, consideration should be given to setting guidelines within which the head of school can act. Only outside of those parameters does the board need to consider acting. Board committees often rubber stamp (or overreach) because they lack expertise (or have a different agenda than what the head of school has been directed to advance).
What should good policy look like? Policy should do one of three things, and a set of policies should do all three. Good policies define, empower, and constrain. A policy that does none of these things isn’t really a policy. Measuring effectiveness against these elements can be a helpful exercise to test the school’s policy strengths.
Let’s discuss three important kinds of policies: Ends, Means, and Executive Limitations.
Ends policies define and communicate the ends of an organization—who the organization is, who they want to be, what outcomes are expected. Ends may include elements from the school’s bylaws that name qualifications for board membership (or doctrinal tenets faculty and staff subscribe to) or a portrait of a graduate as a high-level outcome. Ends may also be more granular, such as test score expectations, discipleship measurements, and similar assessments.
Ends policies also help boards guard the mission and direction of the school. Their own succession planning is critical in this regard. Boards should take the role of identifying, vetting, and training new board members seriously.
It is not enough for a board member to agree with the doctrinal distinctives of the school. Rather, it is essential that every board member agrees on their importance. Drift doesn’t happen in one step; it is a series of replacing those who both agree and believe in the importance of agreement with those who simply agree. Eventually, when faced with challenges to foundational tenets, no real defense is offered.
Ends are also key to assessing how well your school is performing. Schools ought to be especially good at evaluation. Educators are well trained to assess, and boards can rely on that educational expertise to not just set ends but also to monitor and track performance.
“Drift doesn’t happen in one step; it is a series of replacing those who both agree and believe in the importance of agreement with those who simply agree.”
This assessment ought to take place in all areas of the school program. Where schools most often fail is in assessing spiritual formation and culture, but the resources are there. One resource schools should consider is the CACE Practicing Faith Survey. The board needs to set expectations that all areas, including spiritual formation and culture, are assessed.
Means policies are those that empower or ones that include the means that can and should be used to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Means policies are the tools at the disposal of the board’s (hopefully one) employee as well as the board members themselves where appropriate. What means can the head of school use to accomplish the established ends? Examples of means are hiring, leading, promoting, and planning.
School leaders should know what they are able to do and what resources they have at their disposal. If a school leader is expected to deliver an effective program of Christian education at the school, that leader needs to know what resources are at their disposal.
Executive Limitations policies are those that constrain, that place limitations on primarily the head of school. Within what parameters does the board expect the head of school to carry out their responsibilities? How do those parameters protect the organization while not overly constraining the head of school?
Boards have the prerogative to set these limitations as they like. However, consequences to these constraints should be considered. If a board sets strident limitations in a particular area, they are likely going to have to play a more active role in that area. That implication may be okay. But it should be considered as policies that limit executive action are implemented.
“Shared responsibility often results in ambiguous lines of responsibility.”
As boards place limitations on their head of school, they should consider the fact that they are, at times, creating an area of shared responsibility. For example, if a board has a role in approving curriculum, their role needs to be considered when they are assessing the head of school’s effectiveness in leading this effort. Shared responsibility often results in ambiguous lines of responsibility. This ambiguity can be a challenge for both a board as well as a head of school.
Policies as guide rails
However a school is governed, good policy is important. Policy defines expectations and helps ensure accountability. A particular structure is far less important than good practices related to these expectations and accountability. How successful is your board in setting good policies? What ends, means, and limitations are most problematic or most helpful to you? What further conversations would be valuable topics around governance? Is better training needed around policy governance? Consider next steps toward increasing the effectiveness of your board and your school through establishing and executing good policy.