School Board Reinventing Itself

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," November 9, 1999, p. 13A

Our school board members headed off for a retreat with two books. They returned with a new set of governance policies.

It is said of popular uprisings, “If the people will lead, their leaders will follow."

Our students lead. They set high standards for us all. Academics and athletics. Forensics and football. Math and music. Science and soccer. Writing and wrestling. By most measures, most of the time, among the state’s best.

Now our school board is bringing distinction to our district for its leadership in rational and innovative governance policies.

Matt Goodlaxson is proving ever-more impressive as chair. Don Jackson spurred us to action. Dale Shultz put the policies on his Web page. Those three, and Dr. Pete Wallace, bring training and experience with best business practicies. Lauren Reece brings a political savvy and parents’ leadership perspective. Al Leff brings the greatest sense of humor – and of history.

Never have I so admired a group product to which I have contributed so little.

The editor of another local paper, which will remain nameless, commented that such sessions are as exciting as watching a rock. He wasn’t there. (His reporter was.) For some groups his might be a fair and clever characterization. Not for ours.

Even the University of Iowa’s distinguished basketball two-fer, coaches Steve and Sam Alford, would have been impressed with the fast-paced teamwork in the Herbert Hoover Library conference room that weekend.

Everyone present for two six-hour sessions. No shouting. No foot dragging negativity. Just civility, respect, good humor, and group focus on a common goal. Ideas and textual passages moved around like a basketball during passing drill. Consensus formed, pro or con. On to the next item.

Partly it was our awareness that, to borrow from the country song lyrics, “We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there/We’re going to do what they say can’t be done.”

And we did.

It was finish by Monday or not finish until May.

We made it through two entire books about board governance, the Carvers’ Boards That Make a Difference and Reinventing Your Board. We rejected some of their suggestions, adopted others whole, and modified most to better fit our school district’s culture and children.

The board’s proposed policies fall into four Carver categories: board governance, executive limitations, board-superintendent linkage, and ends. The first three are primarily for the board and superintendent. But public input is welcomed on all.

Ends (measurable goals) are the board’s primary responsibility. Their formulation and revision go on forever. The district’s strategic plan already spells out some. The Board starts with those. Public input is the most essential for ends. In fact, the Board is considering picking ends topics for its meetings in the schools.

It would be impossible to say who drafted what. Virtually every line reflects input from all seven board members.

And a special commendation is due Dr. Lane Plugge. It’s a rare superintendent who could sit through sessions like that – let alone provide the assistance he did. Because the ends and executive limitations for the district become the objectives by which his performance will be evaluated.

The analogy is extreme, but it’s kind of like being present at the planning of your own execution. Listening to the group vacillate between the relative merits of gas and hanging. And then helping them answer questions like, “Hey, do you know anything about how tight the cuffs have to be fastened for an electrocution?”

Not only is nobody thinking about executions, a primary purpose of the exercise is to prevent them.

Near as I can tell there is universal appreciation and admiration for the job Dr. Plugge has done so far. But he’s done it without board guidance.

He knows his performance is going to be evaluated. He’d just kind of like to know by what standards. And that is, among other things, what we’ve now provided. Because this Board recognizes that its failure to do so would be neither fair nor responsible governance.

In most school districts the superintendent writes board policies for the board, and the board micro-manages (or rubber-stamps) the administrative decisions of the superintendent.

We’re changing that.

We want clear lines of responsibility. So does Dr. Plugge. And so should you.

The board will set policy and measurable goals that reflect community values and input. It’s up to the superintendent to get us there by any means not prohibited by the executive limitations.

It’s up to you to lend a hand.

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City School Board.