Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

Module 7: Exercising Authentic Governance: The School Board’s Role as Policymaker

Last updated in 2015
(module update currently in progress)
Exercising Authentic Governance: The School Board’s Role as Policymaker
Arrow LeftPrevious Module
Next ModuleArrow Right


  • the components of effective policy;
  • areas of policy development;
  • the relationship between board policy and student achievement and well-being; and
  • school board policy as local democracy in action.


Simply put, policy is “a set of organizational statements, values and perspectives adopted by a board, to direct a course of action.”

Policy making is one of the primary roles of publicly funded school boards. Thoughtful, carefully developed policy provides a framework for ethical decision-making and guides the operations of the board. By giving final approval to all policies, trustees ensure that decisions reflect board values. At its highest level, policy helps to translate the vision and the intention of the school board into actions for its students. This is how school boards establish direction and give structure to their boards.

Significant shifts in priorities, especially those related to the focus on student achievement and well-being at the local and provincial levels, are having a fundamental impact on teaching and learning in school boards. Boards across the province are recognizing the importance of staying “on message” about a few key priorities that create a student-centred learning climate, and recognizing that this focus requires meaningful adjustments to their policymaking role.

We can expect, then, an increased interest and focus on “whole system reform”. It is especially encouraging that the interest has moved beyond achievement results to policy and strategy questions. …Debating policy and strategy together represents a significant advance. The race now is to figure out how to get major improvements across the system by mobilizing educators, parents, students, and communities to engage in the collective efforts necessary for success.[1]

The elected school board governs through policies which have the force of law. The Education Act, in describing the authority of school boards, sets out their specific authority to exercise power through policy. This authority rests with the board of trustees as a whole and represents the “voice” of the board. Individual board members demonstrate effectiveness through an ability to influence and help the board come to decisions as a group.

Current research speaks specifically to the practices that contribute to districts being identified as strong. In Strong Districts and their Leadership (2013)[2] there is reference to studies which articulate effective trustee practice. This research associates strong district performance with elected boards of trustees whose patterns of practice adhere closely to a “policy governance” model – now captured in Ontario’s Bill 177. Growth in student achievement and well-being is encouraged when the board of trustees focuses most of their time and attention on board policy and ensuring that the board’s mission and vision drive improvement efforts. More specifically, the board of trustees contributes most to district goals when it:

  • Participates with senior staff in assessing community values and interests and incorporates them into the school system’s mission and vision for students -Helps create a climate which engages teachers, administrators, parents and the wider community in developing and supporting the vision
  • Helps create a climate of excellence that makes achieving the vision possible
  • Uses the district’s beliefs and vision for student learning and well-being consistent with the system’s mission and vision
  • Focuses most policy making on the improvement of student learning and well-being
  • Uses the districts beliefs and vision for student learning and well-being as the foundation for strategic planning and ongoing system evaluation
  • Focuses most policy making on the improvement of student learning and well-being consistent with the system’s mission and vision
  • Develops policies and supports staff decisions aimed at providing rich curricula and engaging forms of instruction for all students and eliminating those that do not
  • Contributes to the development of productive relationships with and among senior staff, school staffs, community stakeholders and provincial education officials
  • Provides systematic orientation opportunities for new members and ongoing training for existing members
  • Develops and sustains productive working relationships among members of the elected board
  • Respects the role of the director of education and senior staff in their responsibilities for school system administration
  • Holds the director accountable for improving teaching and learning in the school system, and
  • Holds its individual members accountable for supporting decisions of the board, as a whole, once those decisions have been made. (pages 19 - 20)
The Purpose of Policies

Policies fulfill several purposes. Policies:

  • explain why things need to change;
  • communicate the board’s priorities and expectations;
  • inform judgement and ensure long-term planning throughout the system;
  • help the board to focus on what is important – student learning;
  • improve decision-making by addressing issues central to authentic governance such as the need to be accountable or to address issues related to equity or safety;
  • rely on evidence, analysis and evaluation;
  • help the board to manage risk by considering the impact of direction to people and organizations;
  • are compliant with government mandates and requirements; and
  • strengthen relationships by actively engaging the board with its staff, parents and larger community, both to provide information and to communicate.


The board of trustees must be mindful of devoting the greatest time and effort to those policies which are central to the goal of student achievement and well-being, because this is critical to authentic governance. Issues that are raised for inclusion in the policy should be consistent with and support the priorities of the school board.

It is important to know when a particular initiative is a matter of compliance or due diligence. For example, the elected board must comply with provincial government directives related to balancing the budget, codes of conduct, or municipal freedom of information and protection of privacy, EQAO testing, etc. There are mandated aspects of their own policies which boards cannot change – e.g., the processes for appeals and hearings regarding student discipline. On the other hand, there are aspects of governance, such as board goals, strategic planning, and student accommodation, which provide the opportunity to deeply engage stakeholders in setting directions for the board. Knowing the difference is at the heart of inspiring public confidence.

The board of trustees also needs to be clear about its role in developing policy which expresses overall direction and purpose. The director of education then develops, implements, and monitors administrative procedures which provide detailed direction to the staff and which must be consistent with board policies.


Policies provide direction and signal the major intentions and priorities of the elected board. They are few in number and broad in scope. Directional policy is expressed in the board goals and strategic directions and is clearly aligned with government priorities. Directional policies signal long-term institutional commitments to student achievement and well- being, to values, and to fairness.

Administrative Procedures

Administrative Procedures, which are a mechanism to implement the policies of the elected board, are specific, detailed and focussed. They enable all areas of the organization to fulfil their day-to-day responsibilities to children and students, employees and the public. The procedures are collected in manuals, handbooks and other resources. They can include guidelines for decision-makers and protocols that set out a prescribed course of action for specific circumstances. Administrative procedures are the responsibility of the director and his/her staff and are made available to the board of trustees.

The Relationship between Boards and Directors in Policymaking

The elected board governs and the director manages the board on a daily basis. The board exercises its role through the adoption of policy, establishing goals, monitoring progress and engaging with its communities. The job of the director of education is to provide leadership in turning the broad directives of the board into reality throughout all the operations of the district school board. It is up to the director, through his/her staff, to develop appropriate procedures and processes to ensure effective implementation of policy and strategic plans.


Locally elected boards are the most effective structure in which to promote accountability for public education. The public expects elected school boards to develop and implement policies as part of their mandate. More importantly, they expect school boards to use the policy process as a powerful conversational tool to connect the broader community with schools. They expect that the desired outcome of all policymaking will be improved student learning, achievement and well-being.

It is important, therefore, to keep students at the centre as changes in the environment around the school board create pressures for policy development. Policy at the school board level has typically reflected changes in provincial and federal laws. Policies must be entirely compliant with prevailing law where appropriate, but there is no need to develop policies to restate mandated actions.

Board members can be called upon to respond to specific events, issues or pressures from particular groups. This may lead to the proliferation of complex and unwieldy board policies which are not closely grounded in the vision and goals that the elected board has for the teaching and learning climate. Where there has been a lack of shared clarity about the respective roles of the board of trustees and the director of education, this has often led to the development of thick binders of policy statements about matters which are, in essence, administrative procedures. These are matters which align with the director’s role as “the chief education officer and the chief executive officer of the board” [Education Act. ss.283 (1.1)] as described in board policy, and they need to be delegated by the board to the director of education.

The focus of the board of trustees must be clearly on the articulation, at the highest level, of the board’s broad priorities and expectations regarding student achievement.

The Education Act includes “board responsibility for student achievement” as the first duty and power of boards [subsection 169.1(1)]. This clause raises some questions for elected boards about how to demonstrate leadership in this area while still recognizing and supporting the day-to-day instructional leadership of the director and all professional educators. How do elected boards best provide leadership for student achievement? The answer lies in the board’s vital role of policy-maker.

Research on the role of elected school boards in student achievement has shown that high performing school boards consistently and clearly articulate their commitment to student learning through written board policy. They also monitor the implementation of these policies regularly and purposefully.

One small research study reported in the ERIC Digest noted:

Board members in high-achieving districts believed that all students had the capacity to achieve, whereas their counterparts in low-achieving districts tended to accept student limitations as unchangeable. Boards in high-achieving districts were knowledgeable about key reform elements such as shared leadership, continuous improvement, staff development, and data-based decision-making, and both they and the professional staff could provide specific examples of how those concepts were being applied in their districts. …[the study] does suggest that board actions are a key part of a “culture of improvement.”[3]

As this example shows, elected boards can use policy to create a district-wide culture that supports the learning of all staff members and students. In addition, boards can use policy to create all-important alignment among the many goals, initiatives and issues that impact on the district.

Holding the ultimate accountability for results, boards should take a systems approach that ensures consistency among goals, plans, resources, capacity, incentives, and assessment. Policy is a key tool in ensuring alignment.[4]

The discussion around the board table among individual trustees can play an important role in shaping board priorities and policy. This flows through to shaping a culture of continuous improvement that positively affects student achievement.

Policy Categories for Student Achievement

The policies developed by elected school boards will address their significant governance roles and will include the following themes:

Vision, Values, and Goals: Boards develop a guiding vision about the centrality of student learning in their governance work, and create a set of fundamental principles, beliefs, or values. The vision and values keep boards focussed on their student-centred strategic directions and should drive all decision-making by the board. In the policy about the board’s vision and goals, the board creates the conditions and sets the context for student learning and well-being. This policy includes a description of the board’s values related to the teaching and learning environment and system capacity-building.

Governance and Planning: Boards describe their governance role in strategic planning, policy development, budget-setting as well as their understanding of the role of the elected board and the role of the director of education.

Program and Achievement Standards: This sets the direction and provides a framework for all of the district school board’s programs which have been designed to comply with provincial mandates as well as to reflect local community needs. In this area, the elected board articulates what it wants students to achieve and their philosophy regarding student achievement and well-being.

Learning Environment: The success, safety and well-being of every student is of paramount importance to boards. It is here that the elected board describes its commitment to safe schools, its respect for the role of students, and its commitment to equity and inclusion.

Personnel and Employee Relations: Every staff member of the district school board contributes to the board’s ability to achieve its goals. Through this policy area, the elected board articulates direction and expresses its beliefs and expectations with regard to its human resources. It also clearly articulates its values regarding succession planning, leadership and capacity building.

Parent/Community Relations: The engagement of parents and the community is crucial to developing and maintaining public confidence in the local school board to meet the long-term needs of children and citizens. In this policy statement, the board outlines the role of decision-making within the context of the responsibility of the board to make decisions. The board also expresses beliefs about volunteers, parent involvement and community partnerships.


All boards should have a thorough and well-constructed Policy Handbook which highlights and supports the very important governance function of the board. In addition to clearly defining the role of the board, the role of the director of education and the delegation of authority from the board to the director, it should include:

  • foundational statements which provide guidance and direction for all activities within the board;
  • directions for how the board itself is to function, how individual trustees are to conduct themselves, and directions for the functioning of board committees and representatives;
  • statements as to how appeals and hearings will be conducted; and
  • non-delegable matters such as policy-making and selection of the director of education.

The Policy Handbook of the board must be supplemented by an Administrative Procedures Manual, the primary written document by which the director of education directs staff. The Procedures Manual must be entirely consistent with the board’s Policy Handbook.

The development of two separate and distinct documents is meant to reinforce the distinction between the board’s responsibility to govern and the director’s executive or administrative duties.


The board of trustees is expected to conduct ongoing reviews of policy to ensure clarity and relevance. In addition the board should articulate its philosophical approach to policy in a “meta-policy” which outlines the framework for policy development. The following list of policies has been successfully used as a framework which meets all the governance requirements of the elected board and articulates the leadership role of the board in its community.

  • Board Vision, Mission and Values
  • Board Strategic Direction
  • Governance By-Laws and Standing Rules
  • Role of the Corporate Board
  • Board Self-Assessment: Governance Performance
  • Code of Conduct: Board Members
  • Role of the Director of Education
  • Selection of the Director of Education
  • Performance Review: Director of Education
  • Delegation of Authority
  • Board Policy Development and Review
  • Learning and Working Environment: Equity and Inclusion
  • Learning and Working Environment: Safe Schools
  • Environmental Sustainability and Stewardship
  • Parent and Community Relations
  • Student Accommodation
  • Transportation Agreements
  • Appeals and Hearings Regarding Student Discipline
  • Hearings on Termination of Teacher Employment

There may be other areas in which policies will be developed. The work in developing them should be completed efficiently so that the largest focus and time commitment of the Board of Trustees is spent on the key governance work of school boards – student achievement and well-being – and the conditions that support that achievement and well-being. There is no more important discussion.


What makes a “good” policy?

Good policy is beneficial. It creates public value. Policy change should benefit individuals, organizations and services. Analysis of intended and unintended consequences is a crucial aspect of policy work.

Good policy is necessary. A clear rationale of the need for a new policy – or for revising an existing policy – is an essential first step.

Good policy has an end in mind. The direction to be set, or the problem to be addressed, by policy change must be clear from the outset. Good policy making considers both the short and longer term systems impact.

Good policy aligns the goals of the government and the school board.

Good policy is well informed, concise and rigorous. Good policy uses evidence and information as the basis for analysis which should, in turn, be rational, comprehensive, thorough and balanced. Quantitative and qualitative information should be applied.

Good policy is ethical. Board Codes of Conduct espouse principles of integrity, respect and accountability that everyone in the board should apply to their work.

Good policy is transparent. The processes used to develop policy need to be clearly communicated and widely understood. The processes should engage from the outset those individuals and organizations who will be affected by policy change.

Good policy is intelligible. Clarity and economy are essential features of good policy. A good policy should be no more than two or three pages in length and in plain English. Policy should be described in as few words as possible with clear messages which are readily understood.

Good policy is open to change and improvement. All policy documents are constructed, published and written in a particular time and place. They should be reviewed, refreshed, abandoned and/or replaced as the board moves forward.

Good policy is timely. Effective policy development and implementation aligns with board milestones and targets, and responds rapidly to emerging challenges and changes of direction.

Good policy can be enacted. Good policy foresees the challenges of implementation and adapts to the shifting realities of operational environments.

As part of its process, the board of trustees should establish an annual policy agenda with a schedule for regular review and monitoring of progress throughout the board meeting agendas. Here again, this should be done with a view to aligning board priorities and maximizing time for discussion and reflection.

What is an effective flow in the policy-making process?

Most elected boards have a clearly articulated policy development process. Generally, it flows like this:

Identification of Policy Issue

Arrow Down

Development of Draft Policy, Input, and Final Approval

Arrow Down


Arrow Down

Review of Policy

Identification of Policy Issues
The identification of the need for a board policy or the need for review or revision of an existing board policy may be initiated by board members, constituent groups, a board’s policy committee, students, or staff members. The need for change could also be identified as a result of policy directives from the Ministry of Education or as a result of regulations or legislation at the federal, provincial or municipal level.

The board of trustees, or a designated committee of the board, considers policies for development or review, including requests for new policies. In many boards this is an annual process. All polices to be reviewed or developed are presented to the board for approval. A board’s policy will usually stipulate this:

“Adoption of new board policies or revision of existing policies is solely the responsibility of the board.”

Development of Draft Policy
When the board of trustees makes a decision to develop a policy or revise an existing policy, a first step involves consultation with constituent groups who may have an interest in the policy. This could include students, parents, staff, employee unions and the broader community.

The school board’s senior staff prepares a draft policy that incorporates the input received. The draft is considered by the board of trustees or a committee of the board to allow for more input. A final draft reflecting this input is submitted to the board for approval. Once approved, the document becomes board policy and goes into effect.

The elected board is responsible for implementing its own policies and is responsible for the formal delegation of authority to the director of education to implement its broad goals and expectations. The implementation plan for a board policy will include information about administrative procedures that support the policy and a communication plan to ensure that all stakeholders are notified about the new or revised policy.

Policy Review
It is necessary to review policies on a regular basis to ensure their relevance to the current school board environment and their compliance with applicable legislation and Ministry policy directives. At the time of adopting a policy, the elected board usually specifies the date it will be due for review.

It is important to define the roles of both staff and the community in the policy development, review and implementation process. The elected board should encourage broad participation in the articulation of its major directional policies. It is wise to use a variety of methods to engage staff and community, including opportunities for all points of view to be heard. The board of trustees then needs to consider all input and information and make its own decision, thus exercising ethical leadership as part of its governing role.

A Policy Checklist

Policy documents should be brief, written in plain English and include the following core elements:

Purpose/intention: a brief, clear and direct explanation of what the policy is intended to achieve and to whom it is intended to apply.

Legislative base: a reference to the legislation that provides the authority for the policy statement.

Scope: to whom and to what the policy applies, where the policy will have effect and the public value it will add.

Context: a brief description of the context within which the policy will operate, including connections with government directions.

Principles: a description of the principles that have shaped the development of the policy and their effect on the way in which it should be applied.

Responsibility: identification of whether the board is solely responsible for the implementation of the policy (e.g., Governance By-Laws and Standing Rules, Board Operations, Board Members’ Code of Conduct, Selection of the Director) or whether the board has delegated responsibility to the director to implement the board’s expectations across the district (Board Vision, Mission and Values).

Policy statement: the policy itself.

Evaluation process: a description of the way in which the impact of the policy will be assessed and a timeline for this.

Review date: a date for review of the policy. Document and version control: the date of original approval of the policy and any subsequent review dates.

Contacts, supporting tools and resource people: as a minimum, a contact person who can assist with inquiries about the policy and any other tools or supporting materials that will help the policy to be understood and successfully implemented.


Effective practices of many school boards in Ontario were relied upon in the development of this module. This is gratefully acknowledged by OESC-CSEO.

Darden, Edwin C. (2008). “The Importance of School Board Policies” in American School Board Journal. accessed September 23, 2010.

National School Boards Association. NSBA Handbook.

Wilson, Lorraine L. Targeting Student Learning Refocuses the Policy Process.


  1. Michael Fullan. (2010). “The Big Ideas Behind Whole System Reform.” Education Canada. Summer 2010. Canadian Education Association. Vol. 50 (3). p. 27

  2. Kenneth Leithwood. (2013). “Strong Districts & Their Leadership”,

  3. Larry Lashway. (2002). “Using School Board Policy to Improve Student Achievement” in ERIC DIGEST 163. December 2002. Clearinghouse on Educational Policy and Management. College of Education. University of Oregon. accessed September 24, 2010.

  4. Ibid.