Elected school boards in Canada’s provincial school systems are gradually becoming “corporate boards.” Today many elected Canadian boards are almost indistinguishable from senior administration and increasingly coming to think, act, and react like corporate entities inclined toward protecting their interests and defending their ‘little empires’. Slowly, over the past three decades, elected school boards have been transformed, adopting strict “policy governance” models, succumbing to provincial centralization, and, in some cases, shrinking away from responsible, democratic trusteeship.
Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex, Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) is now leading the movement chipping away at what’s left of local democratic decision-making in public education. Her innocuous looking little Education Act amendment , NS Bill 131, the “School Board Members Duties Clarification Act,” introduced November 15, 2012, directs elected members to “respect” the superintendent, legislates that they represent “the school board,” and promises to deepen the democratic deficit in public education.
School board members were once known as “school trustees” and expected to represent us, meaning local parents and taxpayers. Today, the Education Department and province’s eight school boards are gradually implementing a new corporate governance model turning elected boards into “rubber stamp” operations, rendering individual school trustees little more than ‘cheerleaders’ for the status quo, and promoting, in the words of Bill 131, “the achievement of all students.”
Nova Scotia may well be an extreme case. Firing three elected boards in six years, placing them under one-person receivership, treating elected representatives like unruly class members, introducing sanctions for periodic misbehaviour, and now legislating a further reduction in duties, has done incalculable damage to the political legitimacy of elected boards. It also reflects a complete misreading of the dire threat to local education democracy.
Elected school boards are now suffering from an advanced stage of “acclamation disease.” In the October 2012 Nova Scotia municipal elections, only three of the province’s eight school boards remained democratically healthy, and two of them were cleansed through previous firings. In the Annapolis Valley Board, school board candidates were acclaimed in 12 of the 14 districts and one seat remains unfilled. Across the province, two-thirds of the seats were uncontested and only 155 candidates surfaced to contest 94 school board positions.
Strict policy governance rules, introduced in stages since 2010, are eating away at responsible, accountable school trusteeship. They also stand in sharp contrast to the Nova Scotia Municipal Act giving “broad authority” to Councils and granting Councillors much broader powers defined “not narrowly and with undue strictness.”
The Canadian School Board Association and its president, Sandi Urban-Hall, are both aware of the imminent dangers, having commissioned a Memorial University research team to conduct a study of the impact of recent school board firings on school board governance and the effectiveness of such elected bodies.
The new Corporate Governance Model, popping-up in Canadian school boards, is completely out-of-step with current thinking in effective board governance. “Shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making” advocated by Harvard University’s Richard Chait are now best governance practice in the public and non-profit sector. They not only produce better decisions, but serve to attract higher calibre board members with something significant to contribute to the organization.
Seven years ago, Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy faced a similar set of school board governance issues. Instead of clamping down on elected school board members, he issued a remarkable March 2006 policy paper entitled “Respect for Ontario School Trustees.”
Alarmed by record numbers of school board acclamations (54% in the 2003 election) and responding to legitimate Ontario Public School Boards Association concerns, the Education Partnership Roundtable recommended a completely different approach than the one chosen by Minister Jennex and her Deputy Minister Carole Olsen.
“The trustee role is widely under-appreciated and misunderstood,” the Ontario policy paper stated, before it “affirmed the standing” of school board trustees as “key decision-makers” exercising “five elements of educational oversight: effectiveness, efficiency, community engagement, ethics, and representation.” The resulting 2009 Ontario reforms spelled out the roles of individual trustees, board chairs and directors of education and boards were mandated to produce multi-year plans for improving student outcomes.
Individual school trustees were fully recognized, in Ontario law, as distinct from administration. Instead of limiting the role, the Ministry of Education reaffirmed the mission-critical role of elected trustees in securing and sustaining “an essential trust agreement with parents and communities around the education and care of children.”
Today Ontario’s elected school board members are recognized for playing a key role in community engagement. Rather than being discouraged or obstructed in trying to work with School Advisory Councils, elected board members are supported in their efforts to work with, and through, school-based parent groups.
Instead of being channeled through the superintendents, the 2006 Ontario Roundtable expressed confidence in elected trustees, urging that they be guaranteed “openness and transparency,” wide access to all “readily accessible information,” and far more more autonomy to “ask questions” and actively engage in local policy-making.
Ontario’s Bill 177, passed into law as the Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act 2009, is certainly not perfect, but at least it defines the roles of individual board members ( 218.1) , board chair (218.4), and directors or superintendents of education (283.1). With a shared leadership model in place and mutual respect re-established, then it is good governance practice to mandate board members “to entrust the day-to-day management of the board to its staff through the superintendent of education.”
Public confidence is already badly shaken, but it is not too late to change direction. It’s time to remove the muzzle and to learn from best governance practice. Putting the “trust” back into the “school trustee” role and giving them back the right to speak up for parents and school communities is a far better way to restore vitality to the whole system.
Why do Elected School Boards actually exist, if not to represent parents, students and the public? What has happened to erode the hard-won tradition of local education democracy? Is it already too late to restore responsible, accountable school trusteeship? If not, where do we begin?