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Board Governance: Theory and Practice
Nicholas Johnson


NOTE: This page will expand over time. It contains resources for those interested in rethinking their role as board members -- whether the board in question is that of a Fortune 500 for-profit corporation, a non-profit or NGO, a school board, or some similar group of individuals charged with some loosely defined responsibilities for an institution and its CEO.

Want a quick read summary? Check out John Carver's article, "Remaking Governance."

There is no commercial element of this Web site. It's simply designed to share ideas with those who may be interested.

On November 16, 2000, the ICCSD Board members participated in a presentation for the Iowa Association of School Boards convention in Des Moines regarding their experiences with the Carver governance model. The PowerPoint presentation they used on that occasion is available as a link from this site: "Governance: The Third Way."

-- Nicholas Johnson , Iowa City, Iowa, April 28, 2000 (E-mail: mailbox [at] nicholasjohnson.org); revised April 29, May 9, May 25, August 8, August 16, August 21, August 25, October 11, November 17, 2000, February 5, April 24, 2001. Links updated October 31, 2012.


The Theory: John Carver

The guru of governance theory -- at least he is mine -- is John Carver. Carver is the author of the books Boards That Make a Difference (Jossey-Bass, 2nd ed. 1997), Reinventing Your Board (Jossey-Bass 1997), and numerous articles. The books are available through conventional and online bookstores. One of the articles, "Remaking Governance: The creator of 'Policy Governance' challenges school boards to change," American School Board Journal, March 2000, p. 26, is available as a link from here. Carver's main Web site is  http://www.carvergovernance.com.


The Practice: The Iowa City Community School District Board

Governance Policies

Following a two-day retreat, on November 23, 1999, the ICCSD Board adopted a Carver-based set of policies using his terminology: Executive Limitations, Board Governance and Board-Superintendent Linkage, along with an explanatory ICCSD Board Governance Policies Prologue: Origins, Purpose, Scope. The new policies' effective date was set by the Board as March 7, 2000.

Academic Ends Policies

Since then the Board has been developing the final set of Carver-based governance policies called "ends" -- beginning with academic ends. This has taken the form of a January 18, 2000, "Sample Academic Ends Policy" document, followed by a presentation by Dr. H. D. Hoover of the University of Iowa and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills on March 21, 2000, and the subsequent "School Board Response to Staff Concerns Regarding Sample Academic Ends Policies" of April 4, 2000.

The evolution of the Board's academic ends policies has gone through a number of drafts. The first was April 7, 2000. The second, an April 25/29 revised document, was the basis for Board discussions May 2. The third includes the Board's May 2 additions to draft two, and revisions from May 7 and 8. The fourth is a covering memo of May 18 and four draft documents prepared for the Board's discussion May 23. The fifth contains the documents as revised by the Board May 23, in preparation for their second reading June 13.

The ends policy prologue was adopted by the Board May 23, 2000, as noted in the minutes, and is available from the District's Web site.

The academic ends policies (essentially the introduction to the reading, writing and math policies which were to follow) were approved on a second reading at the Board's regular meeting June 13, 2000, as reported in the minutes.

The academic ends reading policy, as adopted, is available from the District's Web site. It was approved on a second reading at the Board's regular meeting June 13, 2000, as reported in the minutes.

The academic ends writing policy, as adopted, is available from the District's Web site. It was approved on a second reading at the Board's regular meeting July 11, 2000, as reported in the minutes.

The next academic ends policy involves math. A draft document is titled "Academic Ends Policies -- Mathematics."

Science ends policies were considered as a possibility, but have since been postponed for further staff exploration. "Academic Ends Policies -- Science" sets forth some of the reasons.

Educational Climate and Parental Involvement Policies

Having concluded -- or at least temporarily suspended -- its establishment of academic ends policies, the Board engaged in the first of many brainstorming sessions on July 30, 2000, regarding possible additional ends policies. The current focus is on a cluster of possible policies under the heading of "educational climate." There are three discussion documents that were before the Board on July 30. They are "Brainstorming Ends Policies" (with appendices of Carl D. Glickman, Renewing America's Schools: A Guide for School-Based Action (1993) (a brief excerpt) and the "ICCSD Mission Statement" and supporting documents: 8 strategies, 4 goals, 15 beliefs, 8 parameters and 4 objectives), "Academic Ends Policies (Other Measures),"  and "Elementary Grades 4-6 Performance Music Ends Policy: An Exploration." A working document entitled "ICCSD Board Educational Climate Ends Policies," August 9, 2000, now exists but has not yet been discussed, let alone approved, by the Board.

"Parental involvement" is a major focus and project of the Board during the 2000-2001 year. As it happens, federal law already deals with this subject in a somewhat detailed way, consistent with what the Board has been exploring on its own. Here is a link to Parental Involvement, Title I, Sec. 1118, 20 U.S.C. Sec. 6319. This section is made available here because it is thought to be useful to the ICCSD Board in its drafting of ends policies insofar as it (a) is the law, (b) specifically addresses the needs of those children who have the potential of "falling through the cracks" and have been, for that reason, a concern of the Board, (c) contains a well and professionally considered standard and approach to "parental involvement," and (d) is an example of standards regarding communication between staff and parents as to the academic achievement of students -- a major element of the Board's academic ends policies currently under review.

Prioritizing Policies

Although ends policies help provide direction to the Board, Superintendent, and District stakeholders generally, if there is more than one such policy -- as there virtually always would be -- it leaves the question of priorities. If all goals are equally valued they provide little direction to the Superintendent and future Board members when budget shortfalls require cuts, or change is easier to bring about with some programs than others. Therefore, the Board has begun, but not concluded, the process of thinking through its priorities among ends. Here is an agenda item and preceding memo dealing with that process.

Stakeholders' Appeals from Administrative Decisions

While the Board's new policies clarify the relationship between the Board and Superintendent, they leave open the question of how citizens should proceed if they do not like a Superintendent’s decision. When can they “appeal” to the Board and when not?

To clarify, the Board prepared an "ICCSD Board Policy Appeals Process" which was adopted March 28, 2000. (It states that, in general, the Board will not hear an appeal from a Superintendent’s administrative decision unless it clearly violates Board policy.)

The first case arising under the new policy involved citizens' complaints regarding the Superintendent's handling of their concerns regarding the impact of tennis court lights at City High School. The petition for hearing did not receive the necessary three votes required by the policy, and was therefore denied. However, given the fact that this was the first such case the Board opted to provide an opinion anyway for such guidance as it might provide future board members and petitioners. "Opinion of the Board In re: Superintendent's Tennis Lights Decision," petition denied, April 25, 2000, opinion released May 2, 2000.

The second case involved parents' appeal of a Superintendent's decision denying busing service for their elementary school children. Because this involved the Board's interpretation of the Board's use of the word "unsafe" in its executive limitations the Board voted to hear the appeal and reversed the Superintendent's decision. "Opinion of the Board in Response to Appeal from Superintendent's Busing Decision, Golfview Parents," appeal granted and decided September 26, 2000, opinion released October 10, 2000.

District stakeholders petitioned the School Board on March 27, 2001, itemized their complaints regarding the Superintendent's handling of the resignation of a local high school principal, and offered suggestions for improvements in the Board's monitoring of his performance. This response was drafted by the Board and adopted and released at its next regular meeting, April 10, 2001. "Opinion of the ICCSD Board in Response to a Petition Regarding the Resignation of the City High Principal."

Related Documents

Related documents include the following:

 "Board is Different, Better" is a conversation between "Roger and me" about school board governance, decision making, and citizen appeals. "Roger, what I think is that you haven't heard a word I said." It was published by the Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 11, 2000.

"The ICCSD's Child Centered Management Information System" is an April 14, 2000, version of a "work in progress," in this instance of three members of the School Board, Directors Jackson, Shultz and Johnson. It was presented to the Board April 25, 2000. "Governance" requires not only policies but the monitoring of the compliance with those policies. Additional information is useful for the Board when it is addressing either routine and regularized issues (such as the annual budget) or emergencies.

"Long Range Planning Process and Parameters" is an April 4 document approved by the Board at its regular meeting April 11, 2000. It is a first effort by the Board at one of its most important functions, is an outgrowth of an earlier Board focus limited to school "boundaries," and contemplates an ongoing process of regular review, revision and input from the community and Superintendent.

The board, superintendent, boundaries committee, community and local media have considered a number of components as
"options" that might go into an overall plan for dealing with overcrowded school buildings, inequity in size of classrooms, long range
planning, and related issues and opportunities. But there are not, yet (March 2001), any specific, integrated plans. Nicholas Johnson has attempted to pull some of these ideas into a single, integrated proposal in this discussion document designed to help move the board, and community, from options to conclusion. "Educational Opportunities and Class Size Equity: A Proposal for the Iowa City Community School District Board, March 25, 2001" was distributed to the Superintendent's "Boundaries Committee" on April 9, and approved for distribution to that committee by the Board on April 10, 2001.

"Parental Involvement" is a major undertaking of the Board, spearheaded by Directors Jackson and Reece, with primary staff support provided by Associate Superintendent Jim Behle. The link goes to Director Jackson's PowerPoint presentation regarding the project at the regular Board meeting, June 27, 2000.

"Open Meeting Clarification of May 9, 2000, Statement Regarding District Standards of Honesty" (Delegation from the Board to Superintendent of administrative responsibilities means that there are periodic evaluations by the Board of the Superintendent's performance after the fact. Such evaluations are permitted by Iowa law to be held in closed session. What if the performance being reviewed is the Superintendent's handling of a personnel matter? Is that the same as the Board's evaluation of the employee in question? The Board thought not. The Johnson County Attorney disagreed.

(These are the individual comments of ICCSD School Board member Nicholas Johnson on the occasion of the board's open public deliberations on January 9, 2001. The deliberations involved a statement issued by the Board on May 9, 2000. The January 9 deliberations were held in response to the recommendations of the Johnson County Attorney and his interpretations of the Iowa Open Meetings law and the May 9 meeting. Johnson said, "The Board has taken no action regarding the coach. It has not recommended action be taken by others. In fact, to this day it has never even been informed what action, if any, was taken by the City High Athletic Director, Principal or Superintendent. Neither the statement, nor the closed session, were in my judgment a violation of the Open Meetings law.")

Note: This latter experience regarding Iowa's "open meetings" law, ultimately led to the research and writing of the law review article, Nicholas Johnson, "Open Meetings and Closed Minds: Another Road to the Mountaintop, 53 Drake L. Rev. 11 (2004) (a pdf file).



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