Elected school trustees are perhaps the lowest rung on the ladder of Canadian local democratic governance. Yet, for a civic-minded community of ‘do-gooders’, they seem to get into a an awful lot of hot water and often make headlines across Canada for all the wrong reasons. Some local trustees have been suspended for conflicts of interest or openly criticizing senior staff members in public; others have been found to be utterly incapable of overseeing gigantic financial operations. A few crackpots have sued their own school board over various matters. In some provinces, such as Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Minister of Education has labelled the entire elected board “dysfunctional” and dismissed them from public office.
One leading school school board advocacy group, the Alberta School Boards Association, was so embarrassed by such matters that they went so far as to produce a giant apologia, entitled “Trustees Behaving Badly,” published in in its December 2010 newsletter. http://www.asba.ab.ca/natlegalnews/dec10/files/main_promo.html The ASBA article not only reviewed the sordid litany of school trustee misbehaviour, but also felt compelled to provide professional advice to help school boards rein in “inappropriate school trustee behaviour” and reassure “their communities and electors that someone is minding the store.”
A wayward Calgary Catholic Board trustee, Michael O’Malley, was removed from office in 2007 for various offenses, including breaches of confidentiality, costing taxpayers $750,000 in legal fees. In 2009-10, B.C.’s Langley School Board was investigated for poor financial controls, leaving taxpayers $13.5 million in the hole. More recent school board woes in Ontario have centred on a succession of conflict of interest cases, virtually engulfing the Toronto District Catholic School Board. Three long-serving Toronto public school trustees were sued for conflict of interest on the very eve of the October 2010 municipal elections.
Three times in the past five years Nova Scotia Ministers of Education have intervened — in Halifax, the Strait Region, and the South Shore — to dismiss the entire cast of elected school trustees. In each case, the Minister and Department claimed that the elected trustees had become “dysfunctional” and deserved to be dismissed from public office. Among those disposable trustees were a fair number of honest, public-spirited, and respected local citizens. Firing the trustees once, maybe, twice, possibly, but a third time —has not only rendered school boards a laughing stock, but made it patently obvious that the entire system of local education governance needs to be completely reformed if it is to survive much longer.
The real source of the “dysfunction” lies not so much with the personal deficiencies of trustees, but with the straightjacket rules constraining their actions and rendering them politically impotent. Instead of trashing publicly elected trustees, it’s high time we looked at the Education Act and the strictly limited powers and responsibilities assigned to our elected representatives.
The Nova Scotia Education Act, unlike the Municipal Government Act, entrusts real authority to the Superintendents and strictly limits the powers and duties of our elected representatives. Newly-elected school board members, flush with initial enthusiasm, quickly find themselves bound by a very restrictive code of conduct and behaviour, much like that of children in school. Individual trustees do not officially exist as policy initiators and no role whatsoever is even assigned them in representing the interests and views of their constituents. Most local municipal councillors would find such ‘class behaviour’ regulations laughable. http://gov.ns.ca/JUST/regulations/regs/edmin.htm
The Good Governance Guidelines, produced by Howard Windsor for the reconstituted Halifax School Board in August 2008, are a major source of the dysfunction. The corporate governance model adopted is rather outdated, imposing a very strict clinical, management-driven governance apparatus, separating “policy” and “operations.” The role of the elected board is limited to hiring and evaluating the Superintendent, setting annual goals and priorities, developing written policies, overseeing board finances, and fulfilling other ‘clean-up’ duties.. http://www.hrsb.ns.ca/files/Downloads/pdf/board/Governance_Discussion_Paper.pdf It is not a true model of “shared leadership” nor does it encourage any of what Harvard governance expert Richard Chait would term “generative thinking” and shared decision-making.
Two years later, Nova Scotia further tightened the reins and became the first province in Canada to introduce legislation to discipline individual trustees. Since 2010, an Oath of Office (Schedule C) and Code of Ethics (Schedule D) has been added to the provincial regulations. Stricter governance guidelines have been a total bust, leaving elected trustees with far less to do and much more to complain about in the performance of their critical democratic role
Elected municipal councils, under the Nova Scotia Municipal Act, are granted “broad authority” and the province “respects their right to govern municipalities in whatever ways the councils consider appropriate” within their area of jurisdiction. During the Municipal training sessions after the 2008 elections, newly –elected councillors were properly introduced to their representative roles and further assured that their powers were broadly defined and “not narrowly and with undue strictness.”
Devaluing the elected boards, labelling trustees dysfunctional, and subjecting them to a public flogging is no way to strengthen the democratic basis of our public education system. Appointing another retired provincial bureaucrat to represent the concerns of local communities is a further slap in the face.
Without elected school boards, there is no real public accountability or transparency in the Primary to Grade 12 education system. Reforming local education governance should start with the Education Act and regulations – and focus on clarifying and strengthening the democratic powers of our local, elected representatives. In December 2009, Ontario at least recognized the problem and made an effort to improve school board effectiveness. http://news.ontario.ca/edu/en/2009/12/school-board-governance-in-ontario-1.html Only when this issue is fully addressed in all provinces can we insist that elected trustees hold the administration accountable for improving quality and standards.
Give elected trustees the right to speak up on behalf of their school communities at the Board instead of simply being the Board’s salesperson in the community. Unless and until elected trustees are simply given a more meaningful role and recognized as legitimate democratic representatives, you can expect recurrent governance crises in the future and more calls for abolishing all school boards.
Why do curious, independently-minded elected school trustees so often find themselves in hot water with senior administration and the provincial ministries? What explains their tendency to go “rogue” or “dysfunctional”? Would reforming the Education Act sections defining and limiting their roles make any real difference?