Policy Governance in Grandview Schools

Published January 14, 2015 by justicewg
Data Czar Steve Tankovich, recently sentenced to jail time for his role in the Columbus data-rigging scandal

Data Czar Steve Tankovich, recently sentenced to jail time for his role in the Columbus data-rigging scandal

I have long criticized the Grandview school board for operating in a way that excluded input from parents, stifled discussion between board members, and allowed the superintendent (and the board president) to run the school with little oversight. I called it “Strong Superintendent” policy, in my featured article about the Grandview schools. While I still think that is a good description of the way the board works, it isn’t the correct technical term used by the professional education community. They call it Policy Governance.

Columbus schools failed because of Policy Governance

While Grandview Heights schools have used Policy Governance for a long time, (it’s difficult to pin a date on it because the board has always denied the policy), the Columbus city schools have a shorter history.

In 2006 the Columbus school board determined that they wanted to change the way the board operated. They set strict rules for how they would run the board meetings, conduct discussions, and interact with the Superintendent. The board passed a new set of rules that sharply restricted any public conflict between members, or conflict with the school administration. This text from the board policy manual sets the root qualities for governance:

“ … focus on strategic leadership rather than administrative detail; observe clear distinction between Board and CEO roles; make collective rather than individual decisions; …”

The practical result of this policy was to take any operational decisions at the school away from the board and allow the Superintendent to run the schools with near total freedom. The written policy still was supposed to be followed, but the gap between what the rules say and the practical decisions made on a daily basis allowed the Superintendent a wide latitude.

The board policy on “making collective decisions” could only succeed by limiting the input of parents to the process. If one board member listened to requests for change, but was unable to use back channel discussion with other board members to sway opinions, there was no way to publicly announce support for policy change. The best way to be a board member under Policy Governance is to shut down communications, not respond to emails and letters, and sit in silence.

Things went wrong

The system under Policy Governance at the Columbus schools seemed to be working. The superintendent was required to produce annual reports on the ways the school administration was following the policies the school board created, and – surprise! – the reports gave high marks every year to the administration. The school board thought that was sufficient.

Unfortunately, with the board taking a hands off approach, the school administrators found it easy to fudge some numbers. When that didn’t set off alarms, the incentive system that rewarded results but didn’t check those results went wrong on a massive scale. A district wide data-rigging scandal was allowed to fester for years. The report by state auditor Yost found a “culture of deceit” in the school administration. After the state stepped in to the investigation, they considered action against the educator licenses of 61 current and former employees, including superintendent Harris. The school data czar was sentenced to jail time for tampering with government records. State Auditor Yost specifically blamed policy governance for creating the data-rigging scandal.

The Columbus school board is now in the process of ditching the Policy Governance mode, going back to a traditional board system that listens to whistle blowers and parents with concerns, and investigates the operation of the school on a lower level. Hands off will become hands on. Board members will be able to voice concerns in public meetings.

A history of policy governance at Grandview

The Grandview Heights school board has a long history of unanimous votes. A normal board meetings has no conflict or even questioning of policy at the school. The board members sit and listen, then vote five yes votes. Years go by between votes that are divided.

The school board, if it responds to questions about the way they produce all of these unanimous votes, claims that there is discussion between board members, but they always resolve their questions and opinions into an unanimous vote. However, the school board meeting notes show no record of these “vigorous discussions”.

In the past community members could ask questions about school policy and get some responses from the board at the “Recognition of Guests and Hearing of the Public” part of the board meeting. Under Grant Douglass this part of the meeting is now just a hearing, not a responding session. Say what you want – the board has no response. Because the board doesn’t want to have any conflict between themselves, they actively try to keep parents out of the decision making process.

A history of bad policy is not a good reason to continue

I’m going to use an analogy that is a good match to the policy position at Grandview.

Drivers who don’t use seat belts can list a dozen reasons why it is a better way to drive. It makes entering and leaving faster, solves the problems with pulling your wallet out at fast food, is more comfortable, etc. Unbelted drivers can’t list the advantages to wearing a seat belt – until they drive past a wreck on the road, and see the result of seatbeltless drivers who are ejected from the car.

Policy Governance seems to work well for school boards that follow that policy. It streamlines the work of the board, taking away time intensive oversight processes, listening to complaints from parents and staff, checking on data. The high level planning process that is engaged by the Policy Governance board is just a lot more fun that the dirty work of supervising the schools at the level where carefully crafted policy meets everyday reality of working with humans who inevitably fail those good policies.

Right now the Grandview Heights schools are driving past the wreck of the Columbus schools. It should be a wakeup call, a reason for deep examination of the assumption that drive the school board.

Could there be the same sort of data-rigging that occurred in the Columbus school going on in the Grandview schools? Without a board that has a hands on review of the numbers, who knows? The Grandview schools have avoided the newspaper headlines level of scandal in the past, mostly because of superintendents who followed the laws. The incentives under a Policy Governance system are to fudge the numbers. How long will we stay lucky?

Is the always unanimous school board the best way to create policy on the school board? The emphasis on collective decisions and suppressing all conflict in meetings has a result in incentives to stop listening to parents, failing to encourage more voices in the decision making process, shutting down those who speak up.

When the board started holding meetings to listen to parents who had children who had been bullied at the schools, they were shocked at the stories they heard. The message they got from those parents was “we couldn’t make a public fuss about the bullying, because that isn’t the way things are done here in Grandview Heights”. How many other simmering problems are suppressed, because painting over problems is easier than addressing them?

The Superintendent is not the problem

Gene Harris, former Columbus school Superintendent, plead guilty to charges in the scandal,

Gene Harris, former Columbus school Superintendent, plead guilty to charges in the scandal.

Because Policy Governance is focused so much on the Superintendent, critics are accused of having issues with the person who holds that job. It is important to state this – while a superintendent who does a good job is vital, it is the system of incentives that are created by Policy Governance that can mislead a school system, even with a competent leader.

I don’t think Gene Harris sat down one day and said “lets make a culture of deceit here in the Columbus schools”. The system went wrong because instead of being focused on education, it was all about making Gene Harris look good. All of her subordinates knew that they worked for her, not the school board or the people of Columbus. Fudging numbers so that the boss looks better is justifiable under that system.

Policy Governance, and the mindset that supports it, inevitably leads to corruption in the system. When questions are repressed, and checks and balances removed, the incentives lead to cheating. Parents are turned away from board meetings if they are trying to make any change in the school policy, because “we don’t do that here”. It’s a discriminatory system that favors small groups who have political power to do the behind the scenes lobbying of board members.

My experience with Policy Governance criticism

The usual reaction I get from the school board boosters here in Grandview to posts like this one is “that guy hates everything in Grandview, don’t listen to him”. Lately the responses have been more “if you don’t like it here in Grandview, get out. We can turn up the heat to help you move”. The people who send these messages have no internal insight into why it is wrong for complaints to be responded to with threats. Maybe because “that’s the way we do things here in Grandview Heights?”.

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5 comments on “Policy Governance in Grandview Schools

  • I’m sorry to hear that people are making these rude comments to you, John. I’ve followed your blog for a number of years, and I certainly never got the impression that you were ever trying to do anything but improve things with the Grandview school system. Sadly, politicians everywhere have adopted this attack – if you disagree with me, the only logical conclusion is that you are truly an evil person.

    Your article some years ago about the school board’s “winter retreat” really plays a big part in what is going on here. While I have no details of what happened there, I really don’t believe the board met secretly and devised school policy without public involvement. Therefore, in the minds of the board members, they probably don’t feel they did anything wrong. What I am certain did transpire on the retreat was a social gathering with an emphasis on team building. While this sounds like a good thing, it really is not an appropriate activity for a school board. Grant Douglass is a very friendly person with a very charming way of making you feel important and admired. He undoubtedly treated each board member this way on their retreat. When they wrapped up, each board member went home thinking that Grant really admired and respected them. And, it’s very natural when somebody thinks highly of you for you to think very highly of him. With all this mutual – and completely artificial – love and respect between Grant and each of the board members, it is very logical that Grant gets elected school board president. And it’s very logical that the board will mindlessly agree with Grant on any issue where he expresses an opinion.

    If you have doubts about the validity of my last paragraph, consider this point: Excluding Grant, Grandview has a school board comprised of very weak people. Ms. Evans and Ms. Brannon are very nice and very popular community members, but both are merely enthusiastic, not intelligent and definitely not leadership material. Jesse Truett is constantly terrified that his past episodes of sexual misbehavior with a student will be discussed openly. Adam Miller is a bit unusual and rather afraid of the public after getting beat upon during past Grandview elections. Put it all together and what do you have – a school board without a backbone that collectively does whatever Grant tells them to do.

    (For those of you quick to disagree and say “Ms Brannon is obviously intelligent, she has a computer science degree.” That’s all well and good. Ms. Brannon was probably an excellent student, and it’s terrific that she earned an advanced degree. Her bumbling through her school board position is all the proof you need of her limited common-sense intellect. Check out John’s article about the email Ms. Brannon sent all the band parents last year after they voted to accept the band director’s resignation. “Stay Calm and Keep Marching!”)

    (The astute reader will note that I’ve not bothered addressing anybody who might disagree with my statement about Ms. Evans being an idiot.)

    One of my kids was on a soccer team with one of Grant’s kids, and most of my observations developed from this interaction. Grant comes across as friendly, enthusiastic and optimistic, but it’s all a charade. The reality is that Grant is very pushy. It’s a lot easier for Grant to push you around after he first softens you up with empty compliments. At soccer practice, Grant would approach every kid – with their parents nearby – and tell them what a fantastic job they were doing and how he really admired their talent and hard work. What a great guy! All the parents adore him! Then Grant would pow-wow with the coach and make certain that Grant’s kid was in position to score all the goals. “Coach, you’re a smart guy, and you obviously know a lot more about this sport than I’ll ever learn.” (big toothy smile) “I really like the way you’re coaching my kid, and I can’t believe how many goals they’ve scored when you put them up front in the middle.”

  • Thanks for the long comment on the post.

    Maybe I should clarify the comment I made about insults I have received from people who are not happy with this blog. The Greater Internet F-wad Theory holds true for anyone who posts an opinion on the net. If you have a blog, you become a big target and anonymous people love to say terrible things. I had hoped that because this is little Grandview issues, and not a national issue like healthcare, that people would have some perspective. They don’t. Oh well. I’m not losing sleep over it.

    I sort of agree with your take on Douglass, being a charming guy who is manipulative. The stories I have heard about his insulting behavior during union negotiations, then being vindictive with a union rep to the point where she had to file a suit, didn’t sound charming to me. That’s the opposite of charming. I wasn’t able to confirm that rumor, so I didn’t write a post about it. Probably doesn’t matter any more since the board just elected Debby Brennan to the presidency. I expect Douglass will drop off the board now that he doesn’t get to be the boss.

    Yes, there is a big story waiting to be told about how the change of presidency at the board happened. Working on it now. There must have been some wild back channel bargaining for that to happen (I guess we know what the price of Truett’s vote is (the V.P.), wonder what else was offered). Anyone have a story to tell?

    • If the school district would be faced with an inappropriate relationship between a staff member and student were to happen, would he need to abstain from accepting resignation?

  • That’s an interesting story about Grant and the union rep. Perhaps this is how Grant conducts himself when things don’t go his way? I recall that Grant praised the union during the levy campaign for really stepping up and enabling to board to save money on benefits. (Yeah, right.)

    Debbie Brannon becoming school board president will not change a thing – Grant is still firmly in charge. I do suspect, however, that Grant has a strategy in mind here. Let me explain a possible scenario along the lines of what I could see happening.

    Recently, Edison Intermediate Middle School was renamed Edison Intermediate Larry Larson Middle School. That’s quite a mouthful. Why did the school board rename the middle school? Grant claimed that a group of interested community residents came forward with the idea and insisted that Larry needed to be honored. None of these people were ever named. Everybody just took Grant’s word for it.

    The intermediate/middle school already had a very cumbersome name. Why not rename the high school? It really doesn’t have a name. Grandview Heights High School. Not only does the high school not have a name, Larry Larson had a very successful tenure at the high school, both as football coach and as athletic director. If some building really had to be renamed to honor Larry – and that’s a huge if, by the way – it should have been the high school

    Grant Douglass wants to have the high school renamed for himself. It would be inappropriate for Grant Douglass, school board president, to endorse or even discuss such an idea. But, if Grant takes a back seat and let others run the show, Grant could just smile sheepishly and say things like “Every member of this school board deserves to have a building named for them, and I really can’t imagine why they’re being so dog-gone kind to me. Shucks!” By renaming the middle school for Larry Larson, Grant already has softened Grandview residents to the idea of honoring great people by renaming buildings.

    Most of you probably think I’m crazy here – and I am having a bit of fun with this scenario – but don’t be surprised if Grant pushes through a self-serving issue now that he is no longer the school board president.

  • Regarding this is “how it’s done in Grandview” has resonated in this community for the last 10 years. Only in Grandview does the community elect a board member that as an employee of the school district was forced to resign their position and have their license permanently revoked. Now this board member has been elected as vice president.

    GH Vice President of the board, is also VICE PRESIDENT OF PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT AND THE CENTER FOR CHARTER SCHOOL QUALITY. Somehow, this seems a gray area for a conflict of interest. Just my thought.

    Please check out the article link below from Ohio Education Association:

    Do you know how much of the $900 million being diverted from traditional public schools to charters is coming at the expense of your schools? Get the KnowYourCharter.com toolkit, for the tools and resources you need to use KnowYourCharter.com as a tool for member organizing and political advocacy.
    http://www.ohea.org/kyc

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