The Importance of School Board Policies

Edwin C. Darden

From a legal standpoint, school boards exist for one reason: to govern K–12 schools by exercising their power as a policymaking body.

This is no small point. Intellectually, it is easy to explain how a school board should function, but any given academic year brings 1,001 distractions from the main mission. You have budgets to pass, staff to hire, discipline cases to oversee, lawsuits to defend, constituents to answer, contracts to approve, construction and renovations to plan, and so on ad infinitum.

Yet policy is the tool that has been placed exclusively in the hands of school board members. It is the single, most effective way for the final decision makers to take an intimidating, complex, intensely scrutinized entity like a school district and steer it with authority.

This month I will explore legal considerations connected to the board’s policymaking role. Policy is widely misunderstood, even by some veteran board members. It is not an unlimited grant to run roughshod over the judgment of the superintendent and other professional educators. Nor does policy present an opportunity to engage in nepotism or to indulge personal whims by letting it be known that a board member is one of the few who hold the privilege of commanding millions of dollars.

Good policymaking produces a district that is focused in an educational sense and risk-free (at least as much as possible in this litigious environment) by legal standards. Bad policies, by contrast, can spark chaos, blur the board’s vision, and allow lawsuits to succeed even when a school district is in the right. 

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