New Your State School Boards Association

Frankly, my dear, you don't need a policy on absolutely everything

by Courtney Sanik

On Board Online • September 18, 2017

By Courtney Sanik
Senior Policy Consultant

"Do you have a sample policy on ________?"

Welcome to my world. In NYSSBA's Policy Department, we get about 1,200 requests per year, and most take the form above.

Often, the answer is yes. But sometimes the answer is no, because school districts don't need to have a policy on everything under the sun.

For instance, you do not need a policy on:

  • The method your district uses to select members of a parent advisory council.
  • Whether teachers can use school letterhead to write letters of recommendation for students.
  • Who gets to take vacation when.

Why not? All three can be handled by administrators without board action.

Remember, policies are written guidelines set by the school board. Generally they fulfill a legal requirement, state a goal or chart the district's course of action. In general, policies should take a view from 10,000 feet, and not delve into nitty-gritty, day-to-day stuff.

So, you don't need a policy on things such as procedures, job descriptions, or items of collective bargaining.

Nor do you generally need policies that just restate what is specifically outlined in law or regulation. Sometimes you need to lift language from the law to designate what option in the law the district will be using.

While school boards try to keep up with the times, not every social change requires a response in the form of a board policy. Below are five topics that have been frequent subjects of inquiries to NYSSBA, and our recommendations.

  1. Social media. Among policy questions that NYSSBA received during the last school year, the clear front runner was "social media." Boards may wish to adopt a policy regarding the use of social media via personal devices while at school or on the school network. The items to review are NYSSBA policies 4526, Computer Use in Instruction (Acceptable Use) and 5695, Students and Personal Electronic Devices.

    But a policy on social media, in general? Such a policy would have to encompass Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, kik, What'sApp, Tumblr, YouTube, Google+ and whatever app is the new rage among kids, which can change at any moment. It's hard to regulate use of apps that have anonymous users, such as Whisper and Omegle. And new apps and communication methods that use the Internet are invented every day.

    If your board was able to come up with social media policy that addressed a certain undesirable behavior (e.g., thou shalt not create fake social media accounts for school personnel), it probably wouldn't take long for a new problem to arise that the policy will be silent on. You are better off relying on your student code of conduct than creating a social media policy, because people can interpret a policy as allowing everything that is not prohibited.

    This is not to say the board and administration should ignore social media. It's entirely appropriate to make social media a subject of professional development, school assemblies or other form of discussion or guidance.

  2. Facebook friending. In a subset of inquiries we've received about social media, we've heard from many school board members concerned about teachers and students being friends on Facebook. A policy prohibiting this would be vulnerable to a legal challenge. You are better off informally frowning on the idea than banning it. For more on that topic, see our 2014 Eye on Policy article, "Should school district policy stop teachers from 'friending' students on Facebook?" at goo.gl/46x8TE .
  3. Transgender students. NYSSBA has also received requests for policies on transgender students. But New York has the Dignity for All Students Act, which protects students from discrimination based on actual or perceived gender and gender identity, so the rest is in the implementation. When the Dignity Act passed, NYSSBA changed its recommended language on Equal Opportunity (NYSSBA Sample 0100), Sexual Harassment (NYSSBA Sample 0110), and Bullying Prevention and Intervention (NYSSBA Sample 0115). Moreover, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia issued a detailed memorandum and have been very clear on the protections that transgender students have in New York State ( goo.gl/T7mJ4T ).

    Administrators should act consistent with this memo and The Dignity Act. They should address transgender students' issues on a on a case-by-case basis.

  4. Staff dress codes. In recent months, we've noticed an uptick in requests for a policy on a dress code for staff.

    Please, don't go there. According to a 1985 decision by the Public Employment Relations Board, a dress code for staff is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining!

    Unless there is a specific federal or state law or regulation that requires action, it's not a good idea to adopt policy regarding something that is subject to collective bargaining. If your district is having trouble with particular staff people wearing what would reasonably be considered inappropriate attire, it is an administrative matter, not one that requires a board policy.

  5. Nepotism. There have also been a few more requests lately for a policy on "nepotism." Hmmm. Some school districts couldn't function if relatives of board members or administrative staff were prohibited from employment. A board member has the option of recusing himself or herself from a vote involving hiring or doing business for a family member, but it is up to the board member, and the board can't compel a particular vote via policy. See my story "Nepotism: A matter of ethics, not policy" in the May 8, 2017 issue of On Board.

Sometimes things are not in policy because they are part of the school or building level safety plan. Topics like suicide prevention and carbon monoxide detection and leaks are two such examples. Some districts mention these items in a policy on the safety plan, but the details are part of the plan and should not be in policy.

But, please, keep the questions coming! Recent ones have prompted us to research the need to update recommended language regarding electing two vice presidents. The law specifies to elect "a" vice president, so just one V.P. is the rule.

As always, anything necessitating a new policy or policy update will be brought to your attention and changes will be issued through the Policy Update Service first and brought to your attention via Eye on Policy articles in On Board soon after.

If you would like to request a sample for something not mentioned above, wish to read one of the noted Eye on Policy articles, or wish to subscribe to the Update Services please contact us at policy@nyssba.org or (800) 342-3360 and ask to speak with someone in Policy Services.


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