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Archive for October, 2014

School Board elections are in the air in Ontario and Quebec –and ordinary citizens are being exhorted to get out and vote in the Fall of 2014 for the school trustee of their choice. In Ontario, the school boards’ associations are going all out to whip up enthusiasm with a snazzy “It’s All in Your Hands” public awareness campaign. It comes with a rather upbeat video and a promotional piece entitled, “What Do Trustees Do?”  One of  Ontario’s biggest political junkies, Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda has gotten into the act, posting a rousing commentary, “Overlook Your Trustee at Your Peril,”  intended to boost voter participation.

First100DaysLogoThe public appeal attempts to convince municipal voters that elected school boards still matter and that school trustees can be “your voice” in the  local educational decision-making process. The Ontario provincial education budget tops $21 billion per year, so someone has to make a few key decisions at the provincial and local board levels. Much of that spending is transferred from the province to the 72 boards and 10 School Authorities and a surprising amount of that spending remains controlled by democratically-elected school boards.

Publicly-elected trustees, in theory, do have a role in deciding how the dollars will be spent at the district and school level.  Since the mid-1990s, however, that role has been significantly eroded, first through the loss of tax levying powers, and now through changes in school governance that limit the autonomy of individual trustees. Today, elected trustees, known as “School Board Members,” are widely viewed as representatives of the board to the community rather than the voice of citizens at the board table. Centralization of public education has also promoted more bureaucratic modes of operation, further constraining both trustee and parent input into local decision-making processes. In addition, elected trustees are mostly part-timers who are only paid the most modest stipends, ranging from $9,000 to $25,000 a year.

Democratically-elected school boards have been in a shambles in Quebec for most of the past decade. Elections for Quebec school trustees known as school commissioners  hit a new low in the November 2007 election, held — as usual–independent of the province’s regular cycle of municipal elections. The voter participation rate was only 7.9 per cent overall ( and 16.7 per cent in the English boards), leading to the suspension of the whole electoral process for seven years. Now, school board elections are  back, on November 2, 2014, with a major change and a “last chance” challenge from the Quebec Minister of Education.  School Board Chairs will, for the first time, be elected by the whole district, in an attempt to generate more capable, committed board leadership.

Elected trustees are schooled to believe that theirs is “a complicated job” where they have to mediate between the school administration and local citizens.  With the recent erosion of trustee powers, it’s actually an exasperating and mostly thankless one. No wonder municipal school board election turnouts range from 20 per cent to 30 per cent across Ontario.  On October 27, 2014, a small number of votes can make a difference between returning a burned-out “rubber stamp” trustee or injecting some fresh talent.  Low turnout and an under-informed electorate can really threaten the legitimacy of the whole system and especially the democratic accountability of public education.

Every once in a while, a ‘creative disruption’ arises that attracts notice and threatens to disturb the comfortable status quo.  The Rainbow District School Board in Sudbury is now experiencing just that kind of disturbance. It was triggered by a wave of school closures from 2010 to 2012.  Banning citizens from the Board Office and squashing a move to lift a “no-trespass” order against opposing school board candidates is so rare that it has now attracted headlines and editorial criticism. For the first time in years, the local press and a band of citizens are openly questioning the Board Chair Doreen Dewar’s leadership and the RDSB’s inclination to go into hiding to avoid a public scrutiny that’s growing in intensity.

The most exciting Ontario School Board election development is the emergence of  “The first 100 Days” coalition fielding seven candidates in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board elections.  Sparked by the closure of Parkview School and inspired by activist Joanne St. Jacques, they have banded together under a broad school reform platform that includes putting a five-year moratorium on school closures.  It comes at a time when the board will see a big turnover in trustees, and after a tumultuous term of school closings and demolitions, including  a controversial decision to shift the school board headquarters out of the downtown.

Strict policy governance rules, introduced in stages since the mid-1990s, are eating away at responsible, accountable school trusteeship. They also stand in sharp contrast to the Ontario Municipal Act giving “broad authority” to Councils and granting Councillors much broader powers defined “not narrowly and with undue strictness.” The prevailing “corporate governance” model is completely out-of-step with current thinking on effective board governance. “Shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making” advocated by Harvard University’s Richard Chait are now widely recognized as best governance practice in the North American public and non-profit sector, almost everywhere except inside school boards.

Open, shared and generative leadership is exactly what Canadian school boards need to restore proper accountability and repair public trust. That approach not only produces better decisions, but serves to attract higher calibre board members with something significant to contribute to public service. One can only hope that the coming elections in Ontario and Quebec will advance that process.

What do School Trustees do under the current ‘Corporate Governance’ model?  Whatever happened to the spirit and tradition of independently-minded, responsible school trusteeship? Why do School Boards lapse into protective, insular modes of thinking and operations, effectively shutting out concerned parents and taxpayers?  Will the coming cycle of school board elections really change anything?  

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Sitting in the dimly lit, bunker-like Conference Room on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Canada’s last surviving Wandlyn Inn was a little depressing. Listening to a veteran Nova Scotia School Superintendent explain — with clinical precision– the new Hub School Model regulations released in July 2014 was almost too much to bear. The session title gave it all away: “The Operation, Opportunities and Challenges of the Community Hub Model.”  A funny thing has happened to an exciting idea on its way to implementation.

NSSSILogoSmall school activist Kate Oland, a veteran of several Cape Breton school closure battles, was rendered virtually numb. After fighting to save her Middle River School, co-founding the Nova Scotia Small School Initiative, celebrating the April 3, 2013 school closure moratorium, and welcoming the Hub School guidelines, it had all come down to this: the Superintendent in charge of advancing the project still didn’t seem to “get it”: open the school doors to the community and let social innovation in.

Community hub projects come alive with proactive leadership and the scent of social innovation.The founder of Toronto’s Centre of Social Innovation, Tonya Surman, speaking in Sydney, Cape Breton in April 2014, was right on the mark. “You’ve got to be able to dream about what’s possible, ” and she added “social change takes time.”

NewDawnErikaSheaA “New Dawn’ arrived for Holy Angels Academy in Sydney, Cape Breton, but three years after its closure as a public school. Today it’s a thriving Centre for Social Innovation hosting a lively mix of 20 commercial and non-profit enterprises.

That transformation, spearheaded by Rankin MacSween’s New Dawn Enterprises Limited, should be on the curriculum for the training of School Superintendents. It’s time to embrace economic renewal and social enterprise, particularly in a struggling economic province like Nova Scotia.  Founded in 1976 initially as a community development fund to combat plant and mine closures, New Dawn is now a beacon of light for faltering communities on the verge of losing their schools.

With the adoption of the School Hub regulations, the Nova Scotia Education Department is coaxing school boards into being more proactive in transforming emptying schools into shared use facilities and potentially revenue generating operations.

The Hub School guidelines, in the hands of reluctant administrators, may threaten to extinguish community spirit and enterprise. Developed by a faceless team of school administrators, it treats Hub School proposals as “business case briefs” and guides proponents through a virtual “obstacle course” of new approval rules. Serving existing students should come first, but why is the “protection of property” so prominent in the regulations?

Three Nova Scotia community-school groups in River John, Maitland, and Wentworth are fighting to save their schools and fully committed to supporting the “Hubification” process. Economic and social innovation thrives when it is welcomed, as in the case of the New Dawn success in Sydney. It perishes on sterile ground marked off like the hurdles on a high school track field.

Economic renewal and social innovation are possible under the right conditions. What’s the secret to unlocking Social Innovation and revitalizing our schools? What has happened to the Nova Scotia Community Hub School Model on its way to implementation? Is it still possible for small school advocates to clear the latest hurdles and transform schools into true community hubs?

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