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.
The 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?