For the third time in the past five years, a Nova Scotia School Board has been fired by a provincial Minister of Education, a remarkable record for a province with only nine elected education boards. Last year, Prince Edward Island Education Minister Doug Currie also wielded the axe, firing the entire Eastern PEI School Board in the wake of prolonged school closure skirmishes.
On Tuesday November 29, 2011, Nova Scotia’s Education Minister Ramona Jennex shocked everyone in Atlantic Canada by announcing that the elected South Shore Regional School Board (SSRSB) had been “fired” for breaching its code of ethics and proper governance practices. Acting on a School Board Review report produced by Deloitte management consultants, she told the twelve member Board of Trustees in Bridgewater, NS, that they had been dismissed from office. She also announced that the Board had not only been been sacked, but replaced with a senior educrat, Judith Sullivan-Corney, formerly a Deputy Minister with the Nova Scotia Government. (Media Advisory -“Minister Moves to Take Control of SSRSB” – NSDoE, 29 Nov. 2011)
The Minister’s unilateral decision stunned the Chair of the SSRSB veteran Trustee Elliott Payzant, and his 12-member elected who had asked the Minister in June 2011 to audit their governance practices to clear the air. The small Board, established in 2004 with only 32 schools and 7,400 students, had certainly captured the Minister’s attention. It all started in late February 2011 when the elected Trustees voted 10 to 2 to suspend the school closure review process affecting 12 of the 32 schools, overturning a staff recommendation. Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake was completely miffed, since the only two supporting the process were her Board Chair and Vice-Chair Gary Mailman, the Trustee supposedly overseeing governance matters.
The real catalyst for the public controversy was the South Shore weekly, The Progress Bulletin,which had used a Freedom of Information (FOIPOP) request to unearth hundreds of private e-mails suggesting improper governance practices. Those revelations, covered extensively in the South Shore News and The Chronicle Herald, suggested that a group of 4 to 8 trustees were meeting and strategizing to save their community schools, in the wake of their controversial earlier decision to close the historic Lunenburg Academy. When the e-mails were made public, it was also clear that Trustee Karen Reinhardt and Board Chair Payzant were both deeply involved in the behind-the-scenes politicking. http://www.southshorenow.ca/archives/2011/072611/letters/index006.php
The initial Halifax Chronicle Herald editorial (Nov. 30, 2011), accepted the Minister’s decision and reasoning at face value. Closer scrutiny of the Deloitte report (22 November 2011) led governance experts to draw different conclusions. http://www.ednet.ns.ca/pdfdocs/school_boards/PerformanceReviewReportSSRSB.pdf The Management Consultants hired by the DoE brought a corporate governance philosophy to their task, assessing the elected Board according to a clinical model seemingly unaware of the complexities and intricacies of local politics and the trustee’s representational role in the system.
The governance template used to assess the South Shore Board reflected the same managerial orientation. By assuming that the Superintendent was the “gatekeeper” and source of all agenda information, the political actions of trustees taking autonomous policy positions and giving voice to public concerns were seen as destabilizing for the system. Some elected trustees acted inappropriately, particularly in the realm of conflict of interest, and deserved sanctions. On three of six criteria, the elected Board was found in contravention of the governance regulations, but they were judged to be following provincial budget and policy directives. None of the actual recommendations specifically referenced dismissing the entire board. That move was clearly the Minister’s decision.
The “One-Woman-Board,” Ms. Sullivan-Corney, received a slap happy reception from the Superintendent and senior staff in the Bridgewater Board Office. That response stood in stark contrast to the growing media criticism and the chill felt by South Shore parents left without trustees in the local communities. Four or five of the “fired” Trustees were highly respected local citizens, most notably Marg Forbes of Bridgewater and Lunenburg physician Dr. John Jenkins. Some Trustees like Reinhardt were mavericks who stood up strongly for local communities.
Denied their public voice, South Shore parents were not about to be silenced by the Minister or the Superintendent. Within three days, groups of parents in Hebbville, Petite Riviere, Chester, and Lunenburg began to complain loudly about the decision, expressing fear that many of the 12 threatened schools would now be closed. Parent Sherry Doucet of Hebbville spoke out in The Chronicle Herald and Michelle Wamboldt of Petite Riviere was galvanized into action, pushing forward with plans to hold a Small School Summit on January 21, 2012 at the NSCC in Bridgewater. http://thechronicleherald.mobi/novascotia/38279-south-shore-parents-fear-schools-will-be-closed-after-all
Previous decisions to fire Nova Scotia school boards, taken in 2006 ( HalifaxRSB and StraitRSB) by former Education Minister Karen Casey, went far more smoothly. Defenders of small schools now carry much more influence, the “dismissed” Trustees won far more sympathy among the public — and the usual public backlash against all School Boards fizzled when the real underlying issues surfaced.
Public statements by Vic Fleury, Chair of the NSSBA, that the School Board Association was never consulted before the axe fell simply added fuel to the fire. Faced with mounting public concern, the Nova Scotia Department of Education was compelled, a week later, to send out 24,000 leaflets by mail in an attempt to reassure worried parents and families. A one-woman-board was now presented as the answer for those seeking to be heard. http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/40544-education-department-reassures-parents-after-school-board%E2%80%99s-firing
How common in North America is the practice of dismissing elected School Boards? Why have Nova Scotia Education Ministers come to use that power with such frequency? What is wrong with the School Board governance model as presently conceived in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island? What can be done to reform school board governance and, at the same time, to restore public confidence in local education democracy?