A Brief History of School Board Policy Making

When Henry M. (Mitch) Brickell was a young man, with a new doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University, he went to work for a prosperous suburban school district on Long Island. At that time in the late 1950s, the Manhasset Public Schools had a great superintendent, Ray Collins, who gave Mitch an unusual degree of leeway in doing his new job as Assistant Superintendent.

As befits any new Assistant Superintendent, Mitch started to attend Board meetings. As Mitch recalls, the Board members in Manhasset were mostly chief executives of their own companies in New York City. They were used to dealing with their own boards. They believed they knew something about how to relate to board members. To a person, they did not think that Ray knew how to relate to them. Now, keep in mind that there was nothing really wrong in the Manhasset schools. There was nothing the Board members were mad about. They just did not feel in charge, they would say to Ray.

One evening, the school district finance man came to the meeting to present a report. One of the board members said to him something like this: “You know, I am the chief financial officer of my company, and I have to tell you that I cannot understand your financial reports.” At that moment, the lone woman on the Board turned to her fellow Board member and said, “Oh, no. I knew I didn’t understand them, but I felt certain that you did, so I wasn’t worried.” Indeed, important financial reports that the Board members could not understand—one more way that they did not feel in charge.

What to do?

School Board Policy Making—Problem Solved

As it turned out, the solution to Manhasset’s problem was that the superintendent turned Mitch over to the Board. He became the Board’s special assistant, and the board members taught him everything he needed to know in order to invent the school board policy making system that is now used, in one form or another, by most school boards nationwide.

The Manhasset Board taught Mitch that boards were designed to run the place and that they, for one, intended to do exactly that. The Board taught him that policy making is not actually a collaborative event where the board and the superintendent do everything together, happily holding hands. The Board taught him the difference between policies, which boards should adopt, and regulations, which administrators should adopt. The Board taught him how professional educators should work with lay board members.

When Dan Davies, a well-respected Teachers College professor, agreed to help Mitch spread the word across the country, Mitch’s system of school board policy making took off. It was adopted by many school districts in its original form (where policies are numbered, according to a comprehensive index of all possible policy topics). When the National School Boards Association picked up the idea, changing the numbering system to a lettering system, Mitch’s invention spread to even more districts.

If your district’s policy manual is organized according to a numbered or lettered index of policy topics, you are using a version of what Mitch created years ago. Thank you, Manhasset School Board. And Mitch.

The Policy Clock—Your Free Download

Decades later, Mitch and Regina worked in school districts across many states to refine and update Mitch’s original policy making system. At the same time, they began training hundreds and hundreds of school board members at intensive training conferences sponsored by the American School Board Journal, at conferences of state school boards associations, and at individual board retreats across the U.S. The culmination of this shoulder-to-shoulder work with wise board members and talented administrators was their publication of The Policy Clock.

The “policy clock” is just that—a model of governance in the shape of an easy-to-remember clock face. The purpose of the model, which puts board policies into the context of running a school district, is to guide the board and the superintendent into their respective territories so that both will be effective.

Since The Policy Clock was written, Mitch and Regina have given away thousands of copies to school board members and superintendents all over the U.S. It has become the basis for a book and for many more training workshops.

Now The Policy Clock is available as a free download from this website. Use it to stimulate your board’s and your administrators’ thinking.