Elected school board members deserve far more public respect, but can be their own worst enemies. Fighting to promote public engagement and strengthen public accountability at the school-community level is what really matters, not the shape or form of public education governance. What’s really at stake is the fundamental Canadian principle of “responsible government” in our school system.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) we are told is in “chaos” and populated by “dysfunctional trustees,” but so was Rob Ford’s City Council and no one called for its disbanding. Just when it seemed that Ontario’s elected school boards might be on the chopping block, Toronto Star Education reporter Louise Brown did what official school trustee associations have consistently failed to do –made a compelling case for why elected representatives form a potentially “vital bridge between the public and the bureaucracy.”
There’s one significant problem with Brown’s very compelling story entitled “Secret life of a trustee.” TDSB school trustees like Pamela Gough, Jerry Chadwick, Shelley Laskin, Gerri Gershon and Sheila Cary-Meagher are seasoned and effective “school trustees” with a clear sense of purpose and identity. So is YRDSB Trustee for East Gwillimbury Loralea Carruthers and Vancouver Trustee Patti Bacchus. Surveying the school governance models elsewhere, they are exceptions because they have public profiles, push at the boundaries, and wield far more influence than is normally permitted under the prevailing strict “governance rules.”
The Tri-County Regional School Board (TCRSB) exemplifies all that is wrong with the current governance model. Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup’s damning December 2014 report identified the core of the bigger problem. The Tri-County board is simply not fulfilling its core mandate of “educating students,” school management is lax in overseeing “school improvement,” and the elected board is not exercising “proper oversight.”
The Tri-County board in Yarmouth, regrettably, is not alone in exhibiting these critical shortcomings. All eight of Nova Scotia’s boards display, to varying degrees, the same chronic weaknesses in performance management and public accountability. Such governance lapses have already sealed the fate of elected boards in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland/Labrador. Where elected bodies exist, they are little more than examples of democratic tokenism in public education.
Consolidating school board administrative structures might be desirable and cost-effective, but abolishing elected school representatives without an alternative actually makes matters even worse. Without an elected representative, you are left on your own trying to get answers, lodge concerns or navigate your way through the many layers of educational bureaucracy.
While auditing a single school board, the Nova Scotia AG stumbled upon a more fundamental governance problem. Most elected school trustees, now socialized to act like “board members,” are easily co-opted into the corporate administrative culture. Over time, elected boards come to think, act, and react like corporate entities inclined toward protecting their interests, defending their “little empires,” and muzzling critical voices. Even more independently minded members succumb to fussing over “head lice” regulations and meddling in mundane operational matters.
Provincial government responses, so far, have been purely reactive: Dispatching former superintendent-turned-in-house consultant Jim Gunn back to Yarmouth to put the pieces back together is a stop-gap measure. Disbanding the fourth elected school board in Nova Scotia in the short space of eight years will not do any good either.
Each time an elected Nova Scotia board has been dismissed, in Halifax (2006), the Strait Region (2008), and the South Shore (2011), elected board members have been rendered more timid than before, further eroding public accountability at the school-community level.
Since those school board firings, they are now explicitly discouraged from, or obstructed in, working with School Advisory Councils or in responding directly to parent or media concerns. Nova Scotia Bill 131, the School Board Members Duties Clarification Act, enacted in November 2012, only compounded the problem by directing elected members to “respect” the superintendent and represent “the school board,” (not constituents) in their communities.
All of this may explain why Tri-County members, elected multiple times, still have no idea that their role is to hold the administration accountable for student and teacher performance. “Acclamation disease” is now in an advanced stage. In the October 2012 Nova Scotia-wide municipal elections, two-thirds of the seats were uncontested and only 155 candidates surfaced to contest 94 school board positions.
What might work best in fixing education governance and strengthening public accountability? Of the emerging policy options in Nova Scotia , three possible alternatives deserve serious consideration:
1. Re-empower elected boards: Reform the Education Act, clearly define the role and powers of “school trustees,” increase their public profile and compensation, and restore proper public accountability;
2. SAC the boards: Rebuild the existing School Advisory Council (SAC) system, and replace elected school boards with school governing councils entrusted with expanded powers and membership, including a better balance of parent, community and employer representatives;
3. Establish a community-school governance model: Replace school boards with district community-school councils and introduce true community school-based management at each school.
Establishing community school-based governance is a long-term project, but might ultimately be the best option. It was first implemented in the Edmonton public schools by superintendent Mike Strembitsky some 40 years ago. In the words of former teachers’ union president Karen Beaton, it “turned the entire concept of the district upside down.” The central idea was deceptively simple: “Every decision which contributes to the instructional effectiveness of the school, and which can be made at school level, should be made at school level.” Under this system, school principals were given more autonomy, school-community councils established, and parents ultimately secured more choice in terms of school and program options.
Centralized, top-down administrative decision-making, especially in priority areas like literacy, numeracy and school improvement, has been a real bust in the Tri-County area because initiatives were rarely monitored and simply did not “trickle down” to schools.
Introducing a community school governance model with elected district community education councils, supported by re-engineered school-level governing councils, might just be the shake-up the system needs. It is far more likely to foster what Harvard University’s Richard Chait terms “shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making.” It would also help to build public engagement, produce better decisions, and to attract elected members with something significant to contribute to public service.
Whatever happens, the Nova Scotia auditor general’s report has punched a giant hole in the current model of governance on display in far toom many school boards. Letting superintendents run the show in an accountability-free board earns you a clear failing grade. Forget the tinkering — only major governance reform and structural change can address the withered state of local public accountability in education.
Let’s start by asking the right questions: Why do we still need responsible government (elected representatives) at all levels of the provincial education system? What, if anything, can be done to salvage local education accountability and how can we reconstruct the current system of education governance? Is it time to start all over again?