Policy governance in partnership with the community

By John Fry

What does it take to make a good organization better? How should we define excellence? These are some the questions that all board members wrestle with as they carry out their oversight responsibilities for either corporate or private organizations and their owners. In the face of severely constrained resources for schools from the State of Washington and structural impediments that historically have defined how school districts are organized and managed, school boards are continually challenged with how to best educate students.

This is no easy task. It is painfully clear that little will be available in the form of additional resources from the state over the next few years to help us. What then can we do, as a board and community, to make the sort of quantum leaps necessary to move the Mercer Island School District to the next level? What opportunities do we have to take one of the finest school districts in the sate and develop it into one of the finest in the nation?

The answer may lie in two areas: How decisions are made in the district and opportunities for expanding the concept of partnership. Mercer Island is already blessed with a strong sense of participation among the many parts of the school community. The School Board has been working hard over the past 15 months to create an environment in which these relationships can continue to improve. We are also in the process of making some significant changes to the way in which the board approaches and makes decisions. Neither required additional resources and yet both hold the prospect for creating significant improvements for our schools.

After a year of work, the board expects this month to adopt a new model of board governance. This model,we believe will significantly improve how the district as a whole functions. Based on the work of John Carver, this approach is expected to help the district renew its focus on student achievement. In making this change, the board hopes to clarify its role and as a result, help to support and empower the staff.

In essence, the model is based on three basic ideas. The first, and most significant, is the concept that the school board has a responsibility to continually and accurately reflect the community's values, goals and ambitions in defining what our district should provide to all students. These values, or what we are currently calling ``Ends,'' must be clearly and specifically stated in a way that can be unambiguously understood and accurately assessed.

The second basic precept is a commitment to periodically examine our progress toward achieving these ``Ends.'' At a broad level, these new board policies will require that the board continually ask, ``how are we doing in accomplishing what we have said we would do?'' These questions will require establishing and maintaining a comprehensive set of indicators to assess our progress.

The third and unifying theme of the board's new governance approach is based in the need for improved communication. Going forward, the board will establish a calendar of regular meetings with all elements of the community. Everyone, regardless of position or outlook, will have an opportunity to provide input This is where the opportunity of increased partnership, comes into focus.

The continued success and improvement of our schools will hinge, almost exclusively, on our ability to improve communication and deepen our commitment to partnership. The board has begun this effort through a series of meetings over the past three months. These ``linkage meetings'' have provided invaluable input on statements of community values as represented by the policies (ends). These ends set forth what the school district will accomplish on behalf of its students. The board wants to thank everyone who has taken the time to participate by attending one of these meetings, e-mailing or calling individual board members.

The board cannot do it alone nor can we be successful in our mission without the ongoing participation of the whole community. It is our hope that together we can build an improved culture of involvement, where every member of the community sees it as their personal responsibility to participate at some level. We invite all of you to be a part of the work that we are doing. We need all of you to feel a sense of ownership and partnership in this effort. We thank the entire community for the school district that we have today and look forward to building together in the future.

Details on the new board governance model can be found on the school district Web site as can individual contact information for the board and staff.

John Fry, writing for the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors, has been a board member since 2001.

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