Airick Leonard West is a Kansas City Public
Schools (KCPS) board member and served as board chair from 2010–2014.
During that time, he led the implementation of Policy Governance® in
KCPS and currently consults with other urban school boards throughout
the United States looking to effectively implement Policy Governance.
Here he tells us about KCPS’s journey.
A Portrait of Our School District
City Public Schools (KCPS) was long considered Kansas City, Missouri’s,
premier school district in its region. Civic leaders viewed the district
as a community asset that served to attract generations of families to
Kansas City. White-flight and affluent-flight throughout the 1960s and
1970s largely eroded that perception. The majority white, middle-class
district of nearly 90,000 students dwindled to a district of nearly
15,000 students, of whom more than 90 percent were low-income students
The Way We Were
In 1985, the Federal court-imposed desegregation
order effectively removed local control of the school district. Although
technically there was still an elected nine-member school board, for
all practical purposes a court-appointed Desegregation Monitoring
Committee made most of the final decisions. For nearly two decades,
board members tumbled into a dysfunctional pattern of behavior that bore
little resemblance to governance. KCPS board meetings became known
throughout the region—thanks in no small part to local media—as a place
where yelling, cursing, storming out, grandstanding, and even the
occasional tossed beverage took place. Board members spent much of their
time carving out micro-fiefdoms and micromanaging whichever district
staff they could influence behind the scenes.
In 2003, when the court finally lifted the
desegregation order, what remained was a district that had endured
decades of bickering and infighting within the leadership, including
dozens of superintendents who had come and gone. The publicly elected
school board that was in place during the desegregation order existed
without the authority or responsibility to govern. Newly reempowered by
the order’s lifting, it was these same unfortunate habits that the board
brought with it. Many parents and community partners left the district
for private schools and charter schools. Many other parents simply left
the city entirely. The district became mired in a bitter history of
distrust, abandonment, and apathy.
By 2009, the KCPS board had executed its duties so
poorly that the State of Missouri was prepared to take over the district
because of both fiscal insolvency and academic failure. The State
The message from the State Department of Education to
the school board was clear: you have eighteen months to get better, or
Turning Things Around
In an act of desperation, KCPS board members began to
contemplate that their system of governance (or rather, the lack
thereof) had to change. The board discussed adopting one of several
frequently used governance models, but not enough board members were
ever willing to follow through. Old habits proved to be simply too
powerful to break.
In April of 2010, constituents voted in a new slate
of board members. They were ushered into office with a mandate from 70
percent of the voters to do what needed to be done to turn the district
around. As the person most aggressively arguing for a reinvention of
governance and with a viable strategy for how to accomplish it, I was
elected board chair by my fellow board members. Together as a new board
we examined how other urban districts around the country operated and
what governance models were most effective. In June 2010, the newly
elected KCPS board adopted Policy Governance. This governance model
empowered the superintendent to make the decisions necessary to regain
fiscal solvency and restore student achievement.
Cultural transformation requires one of two things:
either causing existing parties to adopt new beliefs that lead to new
behaviors, or replacing existing parties with new parties who already
hold new beliefs that lead to new behaviors. The school board could be
replaced, but the community could not. To sustain this radical shift in
governance culture, the board created and implemented several strategies
that would prove to be key to success.
To win the hearts and minds of community members and
future board members, a series of public trainings called “School Board
School” were held to train grassroots leaders in the new vision of
governance. Community forums were organized in partnership with
grassroots organizations to put public pressure on school board
candidates to commit to adhering to Policy Governance. Candidates had to
be fully invested. Finally, a political action committee was formed
specifically to translate the interests of parents into political power
sufficient to fund candidates who championed Policy Governance.
With this newfound board and community support, the
superintendent used his delegated authority to bring proposals before
the board concerning several dramatic and controversial actions
The KCPS board responded positively by calling for
more than a dozen owner engagement sessions to explain these drastic but
necessary changes to members of the community. To honor the commitment
to transparency, the board created Management Limitation policies that
required an unprecedented amount of parent engagement and public process
by the superintendent prior to implementation. These actions to codify
parent engagement into Management Limitation policies represented the
cultural shift from insider manipulation to professional management.
They demonstrated the new board’s focus on pursuing the district’s Ends
by supporting the superintendent. The new board members showed a level
of discipline that previous boards simply lacked.
The Way We Are Today
In 2015—five years since adopting Policy Governance—KCPS has:
While these statistics do not yet reflect where KCPS
intends to be, they clearly represent a complete turnaround from the
district’s thirty-five-year downward spiral.
How Policy Governance
Made the Difference
Few doubt that the credit for such a significant
academic and operational turnaround in such a short amount of time
belongs primarily to three groups of people: the remarkable students
served by KCPS; the dedicated teachers who work day in and day out; and
the capable, stable leadership team the superintendent has led.
Standing behind all of that is a board fixated on
governing rather than rubber-stamping or micromanaging. This is a board
that is fully invested in—some might even say obsessed with—outcomes and
results for students. When Policy Governance is working effectively,
the model gives space and structure to allow effective operations and
management of the district. In turn, this enables student achievement to
actually be the primary focus of everyone’s activities, including the
Clearly distinguishing between governance work and
management work freed up the board to focus on monitoring student
achievement progress. It also freed the superintendent to make the hard
choices student achievement demands.
Can It Last?
Public elections are the blessing and curse of a
democracy. As long as the community remains satisfied with the
district’s direction and convinced that effective governance has played a
vital role, the governance transformation is sustainable. But should
either of those falter, the masses of individuals disaffected by the
transformation—the thousands of vendors without contracts, the hundreds
of former employees without jobs, the many who believe that
non-micro-managerial boards are morally inept and ethically lazy—will
certainly take advantage of an opening to undo all that has been done.
Those districts that have already adopted Policy
Governance as a means to create an environment that meets the needs of
today’s urban students know that constant and aggressive owner
engagement is a vital strategy in maintaining a healthy, responsible
elected board. In Kansas City, this is largely achieved via routine
board member coaching, regular trainings for owners and board members,
and ongoing monitoring of policy adherence led by a Policy Governance
Educators and districts who are looking for a
solution that will rescue their communities from the constant turmoil,
frequent leadership upheavals, and academic failure that poor governance
promises to at-risk children can leverage these daily crises to take
dramatic action. Policy Governance can provide the catalyst.
Implementing Policy Governance will require a cultural transformation in
both the board and the community. This level of transformation will
also require continuous and strong owner engagement, owner training, and
board training. In addition, successful implementation of Policy
Governance cannot be achieved or sustained without ensuring that the
superintendent and the senior leadership team are equally proficient in
Policy Governance. But it can be done. Kansas City is an example of the
transformative power of Policy Governance in urban, public education.
Airick Leonard West can be contacted at: email@example.com
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