Melinda Selbee is IASB General Counsel and PRESS Editor. Anna Lovern is IASB Policy Director and PRESS Plus Coordinator.
Newcomers to school board work find many challenges, including acquiring a working knowledge of development and implementation of school board policy. Once armed with that working knowledge, school boards — no matter what the experience level — can establish a policy review cycle to ensure school board policies are appropriate, timely, and relevant.
The first part of this article contains guidance for understanding school board policies. It is written by Melinda Selbee, an IASB lawyer and the creator and editor of IASB’s policy update service known by its acronym PRESS (Policy Reference Education Subscription Service). The second part discusses how to establish a policy review cycle. It’s written by Anna Lovern, an IASB policy director and the PRESS Plus coordinator.
Consistent with the legislative intent expressed in the Illinois School Code, school boards govern through written policies that are implemented by the administration. The job of drafting board policies is frequently given to lawyers to ensure legal compliance. The law is never stagnant, which explains why board policies often need review and updating. At the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), lawyers draft and revise sample policies and use a diverse advisory group to provide feedback. IASB policy consultants provide a wide range of policy services from customization to a maintenance service.
The key to understanding a policy is to understand its purpose(s) or function(s). Without understanding the policy’s purpose or function, the policy will not make sense. It will be difficult for the administration to implement and for the board to monitor. Each policy has one or more of the following basic functions or purposes:
- To ensure legal compliance
- To direct or authorize the superintendent or staff members
- To establish board processes, and/or
- To provide information.
Legal compliance is a policy’s primary purpose whenever the policy is required by law. The number of required policies seems to increase with every legislative session. IASB policy consultants have identified 56 policies that were required by law as of January 1, 2015. For example, the Public Funds Investment Act requires each district to have an investment policy. Some laws, like the Identity Protection Act, describe specific components that must be covered in a policy. The recent amendment to the bullying prevention statute details 12 distinct requirements for board policy. The law mandating a policy’s adoption is frequently identified in the policy’s text and should always be cited in the policy’s legal references.
Legal compliance is the primary purpose of some policies even though the applicable state or federal law doesn’t mandate a policy on the topic. These policies typically direct the superintendent or designee to implement a state or federal law. For example, a policy on purchases and contracts is not required, but the topic is addressed by many state statutes. Another example is the policy on the Fair Labor Standards Act; this federal law contains many requirements but doesn’t require the board to adopt a policy. An example of a very important non-required policy having legal compliance as its purpose is the “mandated reporter” policy directing staff members to report abused or neglected children to the Department of Children and Family Services.
In addition to legal compliance, a policy’s purpose may be to establish a board process. Policies on board meeting procedures, committees, and board policy development are examples. Board process policies address how the board governs, the specifics of the board’s job, and accountability measures. While board process policies may contain legal requirements, they also contain best practices that align with IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance, which can be reviewed at www.iasb.com/principles_popup.cfm.
The primary purpose of some policies is to direct or authorize the superintendent and staff to take action or accomplish a specific task. These policies typically concern management or operational issues and do not provide details for exercising the authority. An example is the policy authorizing the superintendent or designee to confer with the board attorney. Implicit in any grant of authority is that it will be exercised under circumstances described in the policy. For example, if a policy authorizes the superintendent or designee to close schools in the event of hazardous weather or an emergency, the board assumes that schools will be closed when those conditions occur.
Finally, the purpose or function of some policies is to provide information and guidance to staff members, students, parents, and community. These policies sometimes paraphrase a statute, such as policies on transportation, food services, and enrollment. A few policies have communication as their only function and do not cite any legal authority, such as policies on parent organizations and booster clubs, chain of command, succession of authority, and public suggestions and concerns.
At the end of most policies are two lists that provide helpful information — legal references and cross-references. The list of legal references contains citations to laws and/or important court decisions that govern or control the policy’s subject matter. The list of cross-references directs the user to other policies, and occasionally procedures, on related topics. For example, the PRESS policy on safety offers cross-references to policies on criminal background investigations, hiring processes, visitors, and others.
All PRESS policies have footnotes accessible to PRESS subscribers from the online version. To find out if your district is a subscriber, contact someone in your business office or anyone in the IASB policy services department. The intent of footnotes is to help your understanding of a policy. A policy’s first footnote indicates if it is a required policy and/or if it is governed by state or federal law. Other footnotes describe legal requirements, provide background, or offer best practices and implementation guidance. Attorneys in the IASB office of general counsel are also available to answer questions.
Establishing Policy Review Cycle
Although there is no legal requirement to do so, school board policies should be reviewed by administration and board on a regular basis to assure that they are in compliance with state and federal statutes and regulations and are relevant to the district. A review is a reassessment of written board policy. It is a look at the whole picture: legal compliance, achieving board goals, and alignment with district practices. Questions the board must ask during a review of a policy are:
- Is this still relevant?
- Is it still legally compliant?
- Does it reflect district practice?
- Does it give adequate direction to the superintendent?
- Are we getting the results we expected when we put the policy in place? (If not, do we need to revise policy?)
Policy review first involves a discussion of a policy topic as a whole, then assessment of existing policy to determine compliance and relevance. District practices and procedures must be reviewed for alignment with policy. If practice and policy do not align, one or the other must be revised.
Most district policy manuals are divided into sections by topic area, e.g., school district organization, school board, general administration, operational services, personnel, instruction, students, and community relations, or similar topics. This structure lends itself to establishing an annual calendar for review.
Boards that want to assure that policies are always relevant to the district often choose to use a calendar that sets months for review of specific areas of policy. These calendars align review of policy topics with mandated activities that districts must perform yearly. The table at left is an example of this type of calendar, based on the IASB Policy Reference Manual.
Once this process is put in place, each policy will be reviewed once each year. Beyond that, individual policies must be updated on an as-needed basis as changes occur in legal requirements and local conditions.
Another option for reviewing district policies — often used by PRESS and PRESS Plus subscribers — is for the board and administration to carefully review each policy that is distributed with suggested updates for alignment with district goals and current procedures and practices. Because changes often occur, there is opportunity to reassess board policies on a regular basis. In addition, if a particular policy has not been updated by PRESS and PRESS Plus within the past five years, it undergoes a thorough review by IASB attorneys. Subscribing districts are then encouraged to review their own policies for relevance and alignment.
Understanding your board policies and keeping them relevant by establishing a policy review cycle are prerequisites to having a properly governed school district. If a district is sued, the board attorney will ask for the applicable board policies and implementing procedures. Boards can help themselves tremendously by closely examining policies, keeping policies current, and seeking assistance if there are questions or concerns. Board members are invited to contact an IASB policy consultant or an attorney in the IASB office of general counsel. Of course, the board’s attorney should be consulted for legal advice or a legal opinion.