Adopting and maintaining board policy is one of a board member’s most important jobs. Having policies that are legally compliant and reflective of district goals should be front and center. But the policy manual can be intimidating – especially for newer board members. It’s a large document that can be rather technical and difficult to read.

Fortunately, there are some best practices that can help you and your board. First among them is to establish a well-run policy committee. Here are some questions to consider:

Should you have a policy committee? Some districts feel that they can best implement policy while acting as a committee of the whole. Others feel that a committee with subject matter expertise should handle policies within their purview. While there is no right answer for all districts, there are distinct advantages to having a policy committee. The policy committee takes responsibility for the policy manual as a whole document, and members can gain expertise in reading and drafting policy in a consistent manner across all subject areas, as well as become knowledgeable in all areas of district operations. In addition, policy committee members can help the board by closely following changes to the law, district needs, and emerging trends that tend to necessitate policy changes.

Who should serve on the policy committee? Typically, the board president appoints members of the policy committee (see the New Jersey School Boards Association’s Critical Policy Reference Manual, policy # 9121, “Duties of the President.”) Some boards believe that new board members should be appointed to the policy committee, so they can learn about the operations of the district and board, as well as become familiar with the policy manual itself. There is merit to this point. However, board presidents should also factor in each board member’s areas of knowledge and expertise, and they should be given the opportunity to serve on a committee in which they have an interest, and on which they will enjoy serving. Ideally, your policy committee will have a mix of newer and more experienced members, so that veteran board members can serve as mentors to newer members. It’s sometimes difficult to accommodate everyone’s choice of committee assignments, and this is often a challenge faced by board presidents, especially where conflicts of interest may arise.

What should the policy committee do? The main function of the policy committee is to make recommendations to the full board for action on policy. A great starting point is bylaw # 9311 in NJSBA’s Critical Policy Reference Manual, which sets out general guidance for the formulation, adoption and amendment of policy. The bylaw suggests that procedures, including an action plan, be developed to ensure that the total policy process is implemented effectively. The beginning of the committee calendar year is an ideal time to modify existing plans and/or develop new ones. Policy committee action plans should provide for the following: 1) Allow for the review of mandated, monitored, or otherwise critical policies. 2) Evaluate suggestions for polices that come from board members, stakeholder groups and the public. 3) Evaluate policy recommendations of the superintendent. 4) In conjunction with the superintendent, establish a schedule for systematic review of all policies on an ongoing basis to ensure the manual is properly updated and maintained.

How does the policy committee determine priorities? Policy # 9311 in NJSBA’s Critical Policy Reference Manual appoints the superintendent as policy coordinator, “to ensure that the total policy process is implemented effectively…” The position of superintendent, or chief school administrator, requires extensive education, experience and training to qualify for state certification. Beyond that, they are the focal point of information and communication between the board, the state Department of Education, the county superintendent, other districts, the staff and the school community in general. The superintendent is in the best position to know what problems or issues exist that may require a change in policy. The policy committee should therefore work closely with the superintendent, or their administrative designee, in setting policy priorities and determining the committee agenda. The superintendent or designee should also be the administration’s point of contact for the committee and should attend all committee meetings.

One of the top priorities of a policy committee is to ensure that policies follow state and federal law and regulations. Some of the things policy committee members can do to help is to monitor the news, including NJSBA’s School Board Notes and its Daily Clips. Check the policy pages of NJSBA’s website regularly at www.njsba.org/policy. In addition, NJSBA maintains a model policy manual, the Critical Policy Reference Manual, which is updated as laws change. Your district may use a private policy service for assistance, and you should also consult regularly with your board attorney.

How does the policy committee handle changes that are discretionary in nature? Discretionary policies are district specific policies that express the board’s position on issues that are not required by law or regulation. A good example would include policies on school dress codes. As noted, priorities for policy development and amendment should be set in consultation with the superintendent or designee. Your superintendent or administrative designee to the committee can best inform the board on the following: 1) Whether existing policies are working. 2) Whether policies line up with current district practices. 3) Whether there are policies that require revision because they are unclear and create confusion about how to handle a situation. 4) Whether there have been situations in the district for which no policy exists. 5) Whether new policies are needed to implement new district initiatives and programs.

What are some best practices for policy committee meetings? Some best practices for your committee meetings may include: 1) Set a definite start and stop time for your meetings and stick to it. This will keep the committee focused on the task at hand and shows respect for everyone’s time. 2) Allow time at each meeting for the consideration of emerging issues as well as review of existingpolicies – consider making a calendar at the beginning of the committee’s calendar year. Identify one series of policies for review and discussion at each meeting. Get the word out, and invite stakeholder input from administration, staff, the public and groups within the school community in advance of the meeting. 3) The committee chair and the policy contact should work together to set the committee agenda, and the agenda should be sent to members well in advance of your meeting; board members are busy and need an ample opportunity to review the materials prior to the meeting. If possible, try to include a weekend for those board members who may not be able to review their materials during the week. Also, consider utilizing a shared drive for the committee agenda and materials, so that members can pose questions prior to the meeting. Your administration or board attorney may have the answer ahead of the meeting, freeing time for other things. 4) Committee members should always read their material in advance of the meeting. 5) If possible, have your board attorney present for committee meetings. Your attorney will be able to answer and resolve legal questions, often in real time. In addition, board attorneys bring with them experience from other districts they represent and may have knowledge and experience with an issue you are now facing. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 6) Invite subject matter experts to your meeting. These may be staff members, members of the community or community groups. For example, if your issue involves the basketball team, the coach, the booster president, and team members may be able to inform the discussion. If a policy issue falls within the purview of another board committee, i.e., curriculum and instruction, invite its input as well.

The committee will likely need to conduct research to see if policy changes are needed. Remember that NJSBA legal and policy services staff can help you with this. Make your recommendation to the board based on the facts and the data you have gathered. Evaluate what other districts are doing, and what is considered best practice on the topic.

Ultimately, new or changed policy requires an affirmative vote of the board. A reasoned argument, backed by facts and data, and having the support of the administration and affected stakeholders can help set the stage for consensus in support and implementation of the new policy language as you move forward.

Visit us online at www.njsba.org/policy.

Peter E. Castellano is the NJSBA’s senior manager for policy.