When I left campus life after nearly 30 years, I served on the District Leadership Team for the Christian Brothers’ District of San Francisco, headquartered at Mont La Salle, high atop Mount Veeder. That’s how I came to live in Our Town 10 years ago this month.
Christian Brothers’ wines and brandy gave the Brothers a highly visible profile in the Napa Valley and across the nation. However, the primary work of the Brothers and their partners is operating schools in more than 80 countries around the world. The District of San Francisco encompasses California, Oregon, and Washington, and it includes a college, an intermediate school, and nine high schools — Napa’s Justin-Siena among them.
One of the roles of our Leadership Team was to support the Office of Education as it recruited, developed, and supervised the governing boards of the intermediate school and the high schools. It is from this perspective that I want to share some of what I learned about board roles and responsibilities.
As was so often the case when I worked with students, faculty, and staff on my own campus and with others as a consultant, I hasten to add that much of what follows is based in the research and writing of others. In this case, the Policy Governance model developed by John Carver, an internationally renowned innovator in the area of board leadership.
We employed the Policy Governance (PG) model for our intermediate and secondary schools, although our work was with appointed rather than elected boards. We operated from the principle that a board’s primary role is to engage in strategic planning as it seeks to answer two overarching questions:
First, what do we want our students to be as the result of their having been in this school?
Second, where do we want this school to be 3-5 years from now?
Under PG, the board is accountable for everything that goes on in the school, but it delegates the responsibility for carrying out the mission to the CEO — who is the board’s sole employee. Everyone else in the school answers to the CEO, who is the person the board holds accountable when things go well and when they don’t.
In retaining CEOs, we focused more on accountability than on responsibility. Accordingly, our primary areas of concern related to the CEO’s demonstrated record of leadership, strategic vision, and the ability to establish a school community wherein achievement and success were most likely to happen for students from a wide range of backgrounds.
A critical feature of the PG model is that the CEO is accountable to the full board only; no member has greater authority than any other. PG boards also operate at arm’s length from day-to-day operations. The trustees in the Brothers’ schools participated in on-going professional development programs to understand (and be reminded) what their roles and responsibilities were and were not.
In his book, “Boards That Make a Difference,” Carver observed, “A common board folly is to want to know ‘everything that is going on.’ Although this thirst can never be satisfied, such boards review and often dabble in much staff activity.” Carver noted that making staff decisions “trivializes the board’s job,” disempowers professionally trained and experienced staff, and reduces the extent to which leadership can be held accountable for achieving outcomes.
Carver concluded, “Because boards spend their time in the impossible attempt to learn all that is going on, they never really come to understand how their organization is doing. Boards that are awash in staff materials (and work) have little time to create the policies that will serve as criteria” for actualizing mission and strategic plans.
Perhaps it is time to consider other models for the St. Helena School Board and its relationships to and with the various constituencies it is seeks to govern and serve. There are a limitless variety of perspectives about the best ways for schools to prepare our young people for the worlds of tomorrow.
Nevertheless, beyond the rancor of the current recall and election debates, a shared commitment to the children and their futures must be the tie that binds.
(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at St. Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: email@example.com.)