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.
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?”.