The school board that oversees North Dakota's largest school district is planning an overhaul of the rules it uses to govern.

The Bismarck School Board next year will adopt a new governing model dubbed "coherent governance" by the Colorado-based consultant group Aspen Group International LLC.

The new model differentiates between school board policies from administrative policies and gives more discretion to the superintendent. Next year, school board members will undergo a $50,000 training program in coherent governance.

The school board decided earlier this month to hire Aspen Group International LLC in a 4-1 vote. Board member Heide Delorme, the lone dissenting vote, expressed concerns due to the district's budget constraints.

"(Funding is) kind of unknown right now," Delorme said last week, referring to the state Legislature freezing K-12 funding for the next two years. "I kind of felt like it was a tight year, (and) that I didn't want to commit to those funds."

The coherent governance model divides the school board's work into four areas that include student educational outcomes and monitoring superintendent performance. School board members in favor of the new model said it will bring clarity to their job duties and the role of the superintendent.

"It clearly defines what the board's purpose is," said Karl Lembke, school board president.

The board heard about coherent governance at a National School Board Association Conference this spring, according to Lembke.

Board members said the governing change is not in response to the school board's past performance. 

"I don't think we have performed poorly or negatively," said board nember Matt Sagsveen, who was first elected in 2010. "My reading of the governance model (is) it will help facilitate our ability to do a better job as board members and to better serve our community."

Delorme, who is in her sixth year on the board, said she is not against coherent governance, and said it would be good to define the superintendent's responsibilities and set clear-cut goals for the district.

The school board will undergo multiple policy training sessions next year, and then adopt the model sometime late next year, according to Lembke. Even with the school board election next year, in which three seats are up for election, Lembke said the new model will be helpful in educating incoming school board members about their duties.

"We're not just doing this for our board ... This is something for a future board," said Lembke, whose term expires next year. Lembke said he hasn't decided whether he will run for re-election.

Sagsveen, whose term also is up next year, said he plans to run again. Sagsveen agreed that coherent governance will be helpful for new school board members.

"I think if you get three new board members, they're going to have the same learning curve in our current system as they would in a new governance plan," he said.

Bismarck Public Schools Superintendent Tamara Uselman said she is in support of the coherent governance model, particularly because it discerns school board work and administrative work.

"I think it’s exactly what the title describes, creating a governance model that’s coherent to everybody," she said. "When you think about when people run for the board, they run for any number of reasons, including the desire for public service. But that doesn't mean you automatically understand the board's role from the administrative role."

Uselman said the school board has "done its work well, historically," in the seven years she's been superintendent in Bismarck.

West Fargo School Board

The West Fargo School Board also switched to the coherent governance model in 2013.

Patti Stedman, a member of the West Fargo School board, who has been a board member for nine years, said the biggest change she's observed is in allowing the superintendent to make decisions about subjects outside the school board's expertise.

"It was a culture change, but a really good change," Stedman said. "It probably holds superintendents more accountable than they're used to."

In turn, Stedman said school board members are able to focus on student academic achievement.

There are still some challenges in adopting the new model, according to Kara Gravley-Stack, West Fargo School Board president, who was elected in 2014. Occasionally board members have to remind themselves what work is board work and what should be handled by the administration.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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