A Governance Revolution

Growing Results for Students through Policy Governance

By Airick Leonard West July 8, 2015 | Print

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

Kansas 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 of color.

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 micro┬şmanaging 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 cited:

  • Inadequate financial reserves to comply with State regulations;
  • Almost twenty findings—from lack of adequate financial controls, to lack of appropriate bookkeeping, to inability to account for funds—on recent financial audits;
  • Around 15 percent of KCPS students were literate and numerate on grade level;
  • A graduation rate below 60 percent; and
  • Average superintendent tenures of eighteen months.

The message from the State Department of Education to the school board was clear: you have eighteen months to get better, or get dissolved.

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 including:

  • Closing 40 percent of the school buildings;
  • Laying off a third of the district’s staff;
  • Terminating tenured teachers who were underperforming or violating district policy;
  • Reducing the number of vendor contracts from more than 5,000 to less than 800;
  • Cutting the central administration’s staff size nearly in half; and
  • Completely overhauling the district’s instructional program.

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:

  • More than 100 percent of the State-mandated financial reserves;
  • Experienced three years with perfectly clean financial audits;
  • Nearly doubled the percentage of children who are literate and numerate on grade level;
  • Boasted a graduation approaching 80 percent; and
  • Had the same superintendent for four years.

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 board’s actions.

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.

Lessons Learned

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 professional.

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:

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