Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

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

Last updated in September 2019

Exercising Authentic Governance: The School Board’s Role as Policymaker
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  • The purpose and components of effective policy
  • The board of trustees’ role in policymaking
  • The relationship between school board policy and student achievement and well-being
  • Policy resources including processes for effective policy development


A key responsibility of any board of trustees is to develop and adopt policies that are based on the board’s vision and that provide a framework for implementation of the vision. Research indicates that “growth in student achievement and well-being is encouraged when elected boards of trustees focus on board policy and concern themselves with ensuring the district mission and vision drive the district’s improvement efforts.”[1]

The Education Act requires boards to develop and maintain policies and organizational structures that promote the school board’s goals and encourage pupils to pursue their educational goals. It is the responsibility of the board of trustees to monitor and evaluate how efficiently the board’s policies are implemented and how effective they are in achieving the board’s goals. Policies will cover such matters as student support services, instructional material, administration of schools, staffing, transportation, accommodation reviews, facilities and equipment, etc.

It is through policy that the board of trustees informs the public, the administration and other staff of its priorities and intent. A policy is a principle or rule that guides decisions that will achieve the organization’s goals. It articulates what must be done and the rationale for it, but does not deal with how it is to be done. A procedure, or a protocol, is usually administrative, and provides the details of how policies are to be implemented. Procedures are the responsibility of directors and staff, not trustees.

As elected representatives, boards of trustees are expected to develop policies in an open and accountable way. The process for developing policies may vary depending on the size of the board. Boards may choose to begin policy development at the committee level, in a standing committee, or a special-purpose ad hoc committee. Boards may also simply choose to use the committee of the whole board for this purpose. Generally, administrative staff are assigned to support committee members with the information and material they need. Board members rely on the director of education and senior staff for expertise and advice to help them reach informed decisions.

It is recommended that, as part of the policy development process, boards consult on draft policies before approving and implementing them. Some boards post draft policies to their website and provide a four to six-week window for public input. For some policies, consultation will come before beginning to draft the policy as well.

The Purpose of Policies

Clearly developed policies fulfill several purposes and help the board achieve its goals by:

  • setting a framework for changes in the board
  • communicating the board’s mission, vision, priorities and expectations
  • focusing the board on what is important – student achievement and well-being
  • improving 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
  • relying on evidence, analysis and evaluation
  • managing risk through considering the impact of direction on people and organizations
  • ensuring compliance with government mandates and requirements
  • contributing to the development of productive relationships with and among trustees, senior staff, school staff, parents, the larger community and provincial education officials - both to provide information and to seek feedback
  • creating a climate which engages teachers, administrators, parents and the wider community in developing and supporting the vision
  • supporting staff decisions aimed at providing rich curricula and engaging forms of instruction for all students and eliminating those that do not
  • respecting the role of the director of education and senior staff in their responsibilities for school system administration
  • holding the director of education accountable for improving teaching and learning in the school system


The board of trustees should be mindful of devoting the greatest time and effort to those policies which are central to promoting student achievement and well-being. Issues that are raised for inclusion in a given policy should be consistent with and support the priorities of the board.

It is important to know when a particular initiative is a matter of compliance or due diligence. For example, the board of trustees must comply with provincial government directives related to balancing the budget, trustee codes of conduct, municipal freedom of information and protection of privacy, etc. There are provincially-mandated elements that boards embed in their 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 school 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 are consistent with board policies.

The Relationship between Boards of Trustees and Directors in Policymaking

“Effective trustees understand that they are not on the board to administer the organization, but rather to govern it.”[2] 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. It is up to the director, through their staff, to develop appropriate procedures and processes to ensure effective implementation of policy and strategic plans.


Policies provide direction and signal the major intentions and priorities of the board of trustees. 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 board of trustees, are specific, detailed and focused. 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 their staff and are made available to the board of trustees.


Locally elected boards are the most effective structure in which to promote accountability for public education. The public expects boards of trustees to develop and implement policies as part of their mandate. More importantly, they expect 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 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.

Trustees 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 board of trustees 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 an excessive number of policy statements about matters which are, in fact, administrative procedures. These are matters which should fall to the director in their role as “the chief education officer and the chief executive officer of the board”.[3] Administrative procedures can be more easily updated to reflect current practices if the guiding policy is succinct.

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 and well-being.

The Education Act includes “board responsibility for student achievement and well-being” as the first duty and power of boards.[4] This clause raises some questions for boards of trustees 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 trustees best provide leadership for student achievement and well-being? The answer lies in the board’s vital role of policy-maker.

Research on the role of boards of trustees 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.

Policy Categories that Support Student Achievement

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

Vision, Values, and Goals: Boards of trustees 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 focused on their student-centred strategic directions and should drive all decision-making. 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 (vs. the operational role of the director) in policies related to strategic planning, policy development, and budget-setting. “Governance cannot be left to chance. Highly effective governance requires a well-defined infrastructure that provides definition, guidance and direction.”[5]

Program and Achievement Standards: This sets the direction and provides a framework for all of the 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 board of trustees 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 board of trustees 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 school board contributes to the board’s ability to achieve its goals. Through this policy area, the board of trustees 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.

Family and Community Engagement: 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 students and citizens. In this policy statement, the board of trustees 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.


Most boards will have a section on their website that contains information about their policies, procedures, and sometimes even by-laws. This may be connected to information about their overall mission and vision as well as their multi-year strategic plan. Some boards may reflect this information by creating a hard copy “Policy Handbook.”

The board of trustees is expected to conduct ongoing reviews of policy to ensure clarity and relevance (see Policy Review for more information). In addition, the board should articulate its philosophical approach to policy in a “meta-policy” which outlines the framework for policy development. Below is a list of examples of policies many boards have developed.

Sample Policies List
  • Board Vision, Mission and Values
  • Board Strategic Direction
  • Governance By-Laws and Standing Rules
  • Role of the Corporate Board
  • Board Self-Assessment: Governance Performance (see Module 21 — Board Self-Assessment: Governance Performance for more information)
  • Code of Conduct: Board Members (see Module 17 — Trustee Code of Conduct for more information)
  • Role of the Director of Education
  • Selection of the Director of Education
  • Performance Review: Director of Education (see Module 5 — Performance Review: Director of Education for more information)
  • 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 school board and government’s goal of fostering student achievement and well-being.

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 considered. “Trustees with a governance mindset are committed to making decisions based on quality information, evidence, and data. Effective trustees do their homework.”[6]

Good policy is ethical. For example, 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 is an essential feature of good policy. A good policy should be no more than two or three pages in length and use plain language. 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 boards of trustees have a clearly articulated policy development process. Generally, it flows like this:

Identification of Policy Issue

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Development of Draft Policy, Input, and Final Approval

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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: “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.

It is important to define the roles of both staff and the community in the policy development, review and implementation process. The board of trustees 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 (see Module 1 — Effective Governance through Ethical Leadership for more information).

The school board’s senior staff then 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 board of trustees 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 government policy directives. At the time of adopting a policy, the elected board usually specifies the date it will be due for review.

A Policy Checklist

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

Basic Information: include the board name and logo along with the policy title and number.

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

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. To ensure document and version control, it should also include the date of original approval of the policy and any subsequent review dates.

Contacts, supporting tools and resource people: at 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.


  1. Strong Districts & Their Leadership, Kenneth Leithwood, 2013

  2. Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together, Davis Campbell, ‎Michael Fullan, 2019

  3. Education Act, s.283 (1.1)

  4. Education Act, s.169.1(1)

  5. Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together, Davis Campbell, ‎Michael Fullan, 2019, page 25

  6. Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together, Davis Campbell, ‎Michael Fullan, 2019, page 41

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