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Columbus Board Weighs Changes To 'Policy Governance'

As state auditors wrap up their investigation into alleged data rigging in the Columbus City Schools, the district is set to make big changes on how it's run. The new president of the Columbus School Board promises to shake things up and increase scrutiny of the district's budget and academic performance. In the early 2000's, the Columbus School Board and its meetings were in chaos. Fights at board meetings were common. The late Bill Moss regularly clashed with administrators and fellow board members. He came to wear military fatigues to meetings and once pounded his shoe on the table until a meeting was adjourned. A stunt that, at the time, was so ridiculous, the Columbus Dispatch wrote commentary on the technique Moss used to bang his shoe on the table.

Bill Moss' technique varied -- one hand, both hands. But give the senior member of the Columbus Board of Education credit for strong arms and good lungs.

To end the strife, the board adopted a management protocol called "policy governance." Ohio State University associate professor Craig Boardman says it was popular among school boards nationwide. "Policy governance in relation to public boards is essentially an attempt to bring some semblance of structure to guide organizational behavior on a board," says Boardman. Policy governance basically kept the board from worrying about the small stuff. It set the policy, and left the administration of the district to then superintendent Gene Harris. She was given a lot more power. No longer could board members even disagree with Harris or each other in public. The motto became "criticize privately, but praise publicly." Advocates of policy governance used words such as "best practices" to describe the management style. But, Boardman says such policies often emphasize efficiency over effectiveness and sideline dissent.

Whenever you have a one best way approach to governing something like a public board you always run the risk of being too dogmatic and really undermining some of the benefits of a diverse board.

As the years went on, new members of the board became frustrated. In May of 2011 former board member Stephanie Groce complained a budget document given them by then superintendent Gene Harris lacked cost figures for some district programs. Under policy governance, budgets were passed sometimes without formal budget hearings. But it was last year's data-rigging scandal that really exposed the limitations policy governance. The mayor's education commission called on the board to increase its oversight. New board president Gary Baker says he'll do just that. Baker wants to re-establish board finance and academic achievement committees. Those committees were disbanded in 2006. Baker says closer board scrutiny "will allow us to better monitor and provide better oversight of district activities." Baker adds that the board will quickly review its policies with an eye toward what he calls more "responsible stewardship." But, Boardman says a school board walks a fine line when delving into budgets and administration. "It's not the board's job to crunch the numbers. However, it is the board's job to have the ability to crunch the numbers and be critical evaluators of the budgets that come across their desks." In an effort to increase transparency, the board plans a series of public hearings on the data investigation and likely budget cuts.