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Schools around the globe are entering a new era of electronic surveillance.  Heightened security threats, high tech innovation and personal data profiling are making for a dangerous combination when it comes to civil rights. One American school system, the Lockport City School District near Buffalo, NY, is trumpeting its plan to spend $2.7 million to install high-tech surveillance cameras in its public schools.  Over in China, Hangzhou No. 11 High School, has just attracted world-wide attention for installing cameras to take attendance and track every activity of students, including reading, writing or listening. High tech, it seems, has a solution for most of today’s school problems and challenges.

School shootings are an all-too frequent and tragic phenomenon in American schools.  The Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 teachers. One American gun safety organization, Everytown Research, has identified at least 315 incidents of gunfire on U.S. school grounds since 2013. When it comes to how American children are exposed to gun violence, gunfire at schools is just the tip of the iceberg–every year, over 2,700 children and teens are shot and killed and nearly 14,500 more are shot and injured.  An estimated 3 million U.S. children are exposed to shootings per year.

School security is definitely a growth industry, right across the United States and increasingly in Canadian urban school districts. In the wake of the recent rash of shootings, educators are asking what more can be done to safeguard students, leading to some rather radical proposals from arming teachers to essentially security-proofing schools.

Shortly after Sandy Hook, Tony Olivo of Corporate Screening and Investigative Group, was invited to Lockport City School District and began conducting school security assessments in the spring of 2013. He and his team sold Superintendent Michelle Bradley on the latest technological solution — SN Tech’s facial recognition software, known as Aegis. The technology was actually developed by SN Tech based in Gananoque, Ontario. In 2016, the company held demonstrations at facilities, including Erie 1- BOCES, in Western New York and those sessions were attended by representatives from some 40 school districts. Lockport City School District became the first to adopt the software and to incorporate it into the district’s $3.8 million security enhancement project.  It is also a real pioneer, since most other Niagara County districts have chosen to invest more in classroom technology than in school surveillance.

HighTechSNTechControlRoomSN Tech’s Aegis software for schools provides heavy duty surveillance, similar to that found in casinos and high security facilities. It includes a facial recognition tool called “Sentry,” a shape recognition tool called “Protector, ” and a forensic search engine called “Mercury.” The Gananoque company claims that “Sentry” can alert school officials if suspended students, fired employees, known sex offenders or gang members  enter a school. “The Protector” is designed to recognize any of “the top ten guns used in school shootings,” including AR-15-style rifles.

While utilizing similar high tech software, the Chinese school is turning it to different purposes. Facial recognition software is used in its cafeteria and library, supposedly for the convenience of students. Several classrooms have been equipped with cameras that can recognize the emotions of students, tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) but raising plenty of concerns about monitoring students for purposes of behavioural compliance. Installed in March of 2018, the Chinese system provides real-time data on students’ outward expressions. tracking whether they look happy, scared, surprised, angry, disgusted, or neutral (disengaged). The whole project is touted as a leading-edge way of ensuring that students are attentive and happy, learning quickly and being prepared well for tests.

Both high tech initiatives raise fundamental issues and deserve to be challenged by educators, parents, and concerned citizens. In China, the Hangzhou High School system has drawn fire from brave citizens and Chinese expatriates. One 23-year-old photographer went online with his critique. “This technology is so twisted, it’s anti-human,” he wrote, likening the students to robots. A Chinese-born Harvard researcher, Jiang Xueqin, saw it as an example of using education as a means of social control. He predicted that it would lead to further “mass experiments” in how to predict and to channel student behaviours.

Installing cameras in Upstate New York schools has not gone unchallenged.  One Niagara County parent and activist, Jim Shultz, put the concerns of many citizens into words.  In April of 2018, he spoke out publicly against the Lockport City School District plan. “The Lockport district,” he wrote in the Lockport Journal, is “making a big mistake” in spending “a huge amount of money” that “could be far better spent on our children’s education and on much wiser security measures at well.”

Three fundamental problems have been raised with the district’s plan.  First, the claim that it is a huge waste of taxpayer’s money that will not necessarily make the schools safer. It was estimated to cost $500 per student and had not been used successfully anywhere else because of glitches.  Second, the project represented an unprecedented invasion of both student and teacher privacy. It could easily be used by administration to conduct investigations for other purposes, including student and staff discipline. Finally, the community of Lockport was never properly consulted about the use of “spy cameras’ until after the initiative was well underway had been made and only a few weeks before the board’s final decision on approving a budget allocation.

Installing cameras and facial recognition software in schools does raise broader concerns. Does the security threat warrant such radical technological  interventions? Should schools use such high tech innovations to monitor and track the activities, movements and expressions of all students and staff in public schools? In establishing limits on electronic surveillance, where might schools draw the line?  At what point do schools begin to resemble high security zones and/or custodial institutions like detention centres? 

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Speaking to the Nova Scotia School Boards Association in Dartmouth in November 2016, Professor Gerald Galway of Memorial University posed the critical question in the starkest terms.  Were Canadian school boards “outworn relics of the past or champions of local democracy?”  That storm warning came too late to save the last school boards still standing in Atlantic Canada.. Today regional school boards are on the verge of extinction and what’s left of local school governance is an endangered species all over eastern Canada, west of Quebec.

The elimination of elected regional school boards was clearly foreshadowed in a synthesis of national research conducted from 2012-13 for the Canadian School Boards Association (CSBA) and later presented in a most revealing September 2013 article in the Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy.  The principal researchers not only rang an alarm bell, but called upon elected board members across Canada to face squarely the choices that lay ahead.  One option, they claimed, was “quiet acquiescence to the centralization of educational governance;” the other was “some form of productive opposition to these forced changes.”  It was “perhaps preferable,” in their words, “to take action to save a sinking ship than to quietly allow nature to take its course in the hope that it (the existing order) will be spared.”

Elected regional boards have passed away, one province at a time, over the past 20 years. The first province to discard regional school boards was New Brunswick.  In February 1996, the Frank McKenna government announced without consultation or any warning that all school boards would be eliminated and elected trustees removed from office, effective March 1, 1996.  The gaping hole in local governance was partially corrected in 2001 with the restoration of District Education Councils (DECSs) populated by well-meaning volunteers serving in elected positions. With real authority still centralized at the provincial level, the DECs have faced an uphill battle to gain public support and confidence.

Next up was Prince Edward Island, when — following a bitter and protracted school closure battle, Minister of Education Doug Currie intervened in January 2011 and fired the entire Eastern District Board, citing the “acrimony among trustees” as his rationale. A single English Language School Board, composed of appointed province-wide trustees, regularly challenged the Education Department’s priorities and questioned its policy directives.. The Wade MacLauchlan government elected in May of 2015 simply absorbed the school board into the Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture and, in September 2016, the Public Schools Branch assumed control of the whole system and English Language school governance was turned over to a three-person Public Schools Branch (PSB) Board, chaired by the Deputy Minister of Education, Susan Willis.  The new model failed its first real test in April 2017 when the Premier MacLauchlan was forced to overturn a PSB recommendation to close two Island schools.

School boards in Newfoundland/Labrador, like those in P.E.I., struggled for public legitimacy and become a regular ‘whipping boy’ for concerns about a myriad of educational issues.  Regional boards, according to Memorial University’s Gerald Galway, bore “the brunt of public dissatisfaction” for “a long list of sins,” including underfunding of schools, busing regulations, and closing or consolidating schools. Within the space of twenty years, the province managed to radically downsize the local governance system three times, reducing the 27 English school districts to 10 in 1997, down to four in 2004, and then to a single district in 2013. The provincial Newfoundland/Labrador English School Board (NLESB) now has 4 sub-districts and 17 elected trustees representing 252 schools. Much like New Brunswick, this restructuring was executed without any public consultation or public debate.

Nova Scotia’s regional school board system remained essentially unchanged in its structure and organization for over twenty years. The N.S. model was established as a result of structural reforms initiated in 1996 by the Liberal government of Dr. John Savage as a critical piece in their education reform agenda.The Nova Scotia government of Stephen McNeil, acting upon Dr. Avis Glaze’s January 2018 report, abolished the English boards and, in their place, vowed to establish a 15-member Provincial Advisory Council on Education, and enhance the authority of School Advisory Councils across the province.

School boards in Nova Scotia, like those elsewhere, demonstrated some glaring and disguised deficiencies:

  • Governance Philosophy and Practice:

Informal and flexible governance practices were gradually supplanted, over time, by more formal guidelines and policies, patterned after John Carver’s “policy governance” model, effectively neutering the elected boards.  School board members were trained to adopt a corporate governance philosophy that significantly weakened their representative role as the “public voice” in the school system.

  • Size and Scale Problem – Too Big to Be Responsive

School district consolidation, from the 1990s onward, has resulted in larger and larger boards where decisions are made further and further away from the schools. One of the early warnings that regional school boards were too big to be effective was issued in 2003 by Queen’s University education professor T.R. Williams:  “Given the present size of boards, the traditional concept of an elected part-time trustee who can fully represent the interests of individual constituents is no longer viable. The current elected district boards are simply too large.”

  • Resistance to School-Level Democratic Accountability

School boards since the mid-1990s, successfully beat back any proposals to significantly restructure Nova Scotia education governance. During the 2006-07 school year, following the firing of two school boards, Charles Cirtwill, then acting president of AIMS, mounted a determined effort to replace existing school boards with “school-based management.” Inspired by the Edmonton Public Schools model and with the support of former Superintendent Angus McBeath, Cirtwill seized the opportunity to rid the province of what were termed “dysfunctional boards” and to devolve more decision-making authority to principals and local school councils. That proposal and other representations fell on deaf ears.

  • Introduction of Strict Board Member Discipline Codes

Following the twin firings of the Halifax Regional School Board and the Strait Regional School Boards in 2006, senior superintendents, with the department’s support, began to enforce stricter “Codes of Conduct” on elected board members and to rein in and effectively muzzle unruly “trustees,” especially during intense periods of school reviews for closure.

  • Public Disengagement and Spread of Acclamation Disease

Elected school boards also suffered from an advanced stage of what might be termed “acclamation disease.”  In the October 2012 municipal election, only three of the province’s eight school boards remained democratically healthy, and two of them were cleansed through previous firings. The problem persisted in October 2016 in spite of an NSSBA campaign to encourage more public participation in school board elections.

  • Inability to Address Declining Student Performance

School boards proved incapable of tackling the problem of lagging student performance.  Nova Scotia’s Auditor General Michael Pickup, in his December 2014 review of the Tri-County Regional School Board (TCRSB) based in Yarmouth, NS, found that board oversight did not stand up under close scrutiny.   While investigating record low scores on math and literacy tests, Pickup uncovered serious lapses in “management oversight” and found that the board did not “spend appropriate effort on the fundamental role of educating students.”

  • Failure to Exercise Effective Oversight over Senior Administration

The N.S. Auditor General was most critical of the lack of oversight exercised by the elected boards in their dealings with their one employee, the Superintendent, and his/her senior staff.  In the case of the Tri-County Regional School Board he found little or no evidence that the elected board properly evaluated or held accountable its own superintendent. The next AG report in November 2015 confirmed that three other “governing boards” were not effectively performing their oversight function.

  • Rigid and Inflexible Responses to School Closures and Hub School Renewal Plans

From 2006 onwards, elected school boards occupied the front-lines in successive waves of school consolidation pitting elected members against communities throughout rural and small-town Nova Scotia. A Nova Scotia Hub School movement gave small communities some reason for hope, but the strict admionistrative guidelines made it next-to-impossible for local parent groups to secure approval for innovative proposes to repurpose their community schools. In the case of Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, the superintendent and staff-imposed requirements that thwarted, at every turn, hub school proposals for three elementary schools, River John, Maitland and Wentworth. When the George D. Lewis Hub School Society plan was rejected in 2017 by the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, the parent group called for the resignation of the entire elected school board. Shooting down hub school plans, on top of closing schools, burned bridges and alienated active parents in a half dozen or more communities.

Regional school boards grew more and more distant and disconnected from local school communities. School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents gradually expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole P-12 school system. The NSSBA and its member boards operated in a peculiar educational bubble. When the decision to dissolve all seven English school boards was announced, it hit the leading members of NSSBA and most regional board chairs like a bolt out of the blue.

What caused the demise of elected school boards in Atlantic Canada? Was it simply a matter of creeping centralization driven by provincial education ministers and senior bureaucrats? How important were school closures in undermining their democratic legitimacy?  Why did alternative school-based governance models vesting more responsibility in school councils fail to materialize? 

 

 

 

 

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Islamophobia, racism, closing schools, running deficits, excessive expenses, and accountability lapses are the flash points for the latest crisis besetting elected school boards across Canada. The rash of recent pecadillos has pushed seasoned political commentators like The Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn over the edge.

yrdsbsuperintendentracismSince the very public Toronto District School Board governance crisis in November 2014, Cohn’s been urging the abolition of school boards. His latest offering “Dismantle school boards, ditch our trustees” (February 1, 2017), delivered this cut line:  “Ontario’s rogue school boards are an embarrassment  to the students they teach–and the parents they serve.” The bungled York Region District School Board response to recent incidents of Islamophobia and racism not only prompted that reaction, but seemed to reveal systemic problems that required immediate reform.

Ridding the education sector of elected trustees is now fashionable, but few critics provide any viable alternatives capable of effectively representing school communities or protecting the public interest in K-12 public education. Abolishing local democratic bodies creates a vacuum that school administration is only too happy to fill in the modern bureaucratic education state.

School trustees have been steadily losing ground as public education became more centralized, regional, and bureaucratic, especially so since the 1920s.  In 1807, school trustees became the first democratically elected politicians in Ontario. Back then, local notables stepped forward to clear the land, build the schools and assemble the teachers — sitting as trustees on boards overseeing one-room schoolhouses and county academies. Today the province calls the shots — controlling the purse strings, opening new schools, and drafting the curriculum.

Trustees in Ontario were stripped of their taxing authority in the mid-199os, which has significantly undermined their power, influence and spending power. As for elected school boards, they are now completely emasculated entities that have lost their right to negotiate teaching contracts and determine the salaries of their own teachers.

Lacking in taxing powers and fiduciary responsibility, school trustees are “bit players in a big system bankrolled by the province,” where the Minister of Education and the provincial education bureaucracy assume responsibility for education and spending decisions. Deprived of any real authority, trustees have been downgraded to “elected Board members” and are suffering total “identity confusion” — which explains the bizarre outbursts, overspending, and secretive actions that have forced the province to step in so often.

Denigrated as “phantom politicians in training,” most elected school board members seek refuge in adhering to collective decisions.  It’s a part-time position that pays a measly stipend and typically attracts either long-service veterans out of retirement village  or rookie candidates who use it as a springboard for higher office. Trustee elections generally attract retired educators, or well-intentioned average citizens, but few prepared to challenge the existing educational order.

School boards in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and the West share a common pattern: feeble accountability, weak governance, and delusions of influence. Most of Ontario’s 700 trustees are p dedicated and hard-working, but their mandate remains a mirage — with no taxing powers, nor any negotiating authority for teachers’ salaries. They do their best, but are emasculated to the point of irrelevance and go through the motions as they pretend to preside over unwieldy and unaccountable school districts with sizable budgets.

Ontario’s Education Minister Mitzie Hunter is the latest to step in to investigate why another dysfunctional elected school board is in hot water with parents and the local public.  In late January 2017, she launched an investigation to get to the bottom of allegations of racism and lack of financial accountability at one of Ontario’s largest regional boards, the York Region District School Board. 

Margaret Wilson, appointed by Ontario’s education minister in November 2014 to investigate the Toronto District School Board, found it so radically dysfunctional she advised the government to examine other ways of running the schools. Her conclusion was far from unique. Across Canada, the traditional system of school boards overseeing local educational matters is gradually disappearing.

New Brunswick was first to eliminate elected trustees, abolishing its school boards altogether in 1996 in favour of a system of district education councils. Newfoundland and Labrador followed suit and reduced all English language school boards down to one province-wide board. In 2015-16, Prince Edward Island abolished its two regional English Boards and replaced them with a three-person Schools Branch education authority and province-wide education consultation groups. More recently, Quebec considered scrapping its 72 school boards and eliminating elected trustees before abandoning the whole project in May of 2016.

Eight elected school boards are still standing in Nova Scotia, but on shaky ground. In a scathing report in December 2015, auditor general Michael Pickup reviewed four boards and cited problems ranging from conflict of interest to a basic lack of understanding about the role of a trustee. In April 2016, the ruling N.S. Liberal Party adopted a policy resolution in favour of school board reduction and, in October 2016, some 66 per cent of the province’s 95 school board seats were uncontested.

vsbtrusteesfiredBritish Columbia’s largest school board, the Vancouver School Board, is in complete disarray. In October 2016, Education Minister Mike Bernier swooped down and “fired” the entire elected board for defying provincial policy directives, refusing to close schools, and running a deficit. Firing the trustees, including two prominent government critics, Mike Lombardi and Patti Bacchus, smacked of partisanship, but also clearly reinforced centralized governance and dealt a blow to local accountability.

Phasing out elected school boards and dismissing school trustees has not proven to be much of an improvement and, in some cases, has fatally wounded local democratic control in K-12 public education. School communities, particularly in rural Canada, are increasingly alienated from distant and bureaucratic school authorities. Public criticism of, and resistance to, the centralization of educational governance is widespread, flaring up during School Review for closure processes in Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

School governing boards or councils, like those in Edmonton, New Zealand and Quebec, have never really been given a fair chance. Rather than clear-cutting education democracy, it’s time to consider turning the whole system right-side up. It would make sense to re-engineer community school-based education governance and  to utilize District School Councils for coordination purposes.

Why are elected school boards now on the endangered educational species list?  How has administrative consolidation and board reduction impacted local school communities?  Who benefits from the centralization of school governance?  Is it feasible to rebuild school-level governance while retaining some measure of province-wide integration in terms of educational policy? 

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When my policy research report, Education on Wheels, was released by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) in January 2015, the official reaction was totally unexpected in the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick.

New Brunswick is currently facing a significant financial challenge with public discussion animated by books like Richard Saillant’s 2014 title, Over the Cliff?: Acting Now to Avoid New Brunswick’s Bankruptcy. It’s also a fully bilingual province with a dual school system where students are educated in either Anglophone or Francophone schools. Every proposed change, we learned, is assessed in relation to its impact upon the duality of educational provision.

AIMSEDonWheelsFew among the political class noticed that our report was subtitled “Seizing Cost and Energy Efficiency Opportunities in Student Transportation.” Instead of seizing the initiative in controlling student transportation costs now consuming up to 7 per cent of the education budget, policy-makers became side-tracked in a time consuming, fruitless debate over maintaining dual busing services.

As the lead author of the first comprehensive review of Atlantic Canadian K-12 student transportation, it was disappointing, to say the least, to see two N.B. cabinet ministers pluck one recommendation, rip it out-of-context, and turn the whole public discussion into a test of the province’s commitment to duality in student busing.

Spending almost two years pursuing a court reference to curtail one rural area (Kent County) involving eight buses out of 1,200 in the province and affecting only 92 students speaks volumes about misplaced provincial priorities. The only real benefit was to raise the profile of law professors seeking to turn this into a test of French linguistic rights.

Now that the New Brunswick Government has wisely abandoned its almost two-year quest to seek a court ruling on the question of dual busing, it’s time to actually get on with tackling the bigger issues, most of which can be done without venturing into that political minefield again.

Under the newly announced provincial policy, N.B. District Education Councils are now free to secure a better deal on bus services for local ratepayers and to reinvest the savings where it counts – in the classroom. To suggest that the recent decision means the “status quo” remains in place is simply indefensible when the AIMS report demonstrated that shared administrative services, contracting out, and energy efficiencies could save New Brunswick taxpayers millions in the years ahead.

Leaving aside dual busing, my report (co-authored with Derek M. Gillis) revealed that the number of school buses in N.B. increased to 1,237 in 2014 from 1,156 in 2009, despite the fact that the total student population declined to 74,055 from 85,000 during that time. Unlike other provinces, over 90 per cent of the province’s school buses are owned and operated by the government with little or no integration or shared agreements with municipal transit services.  The entire system is ‘grant-driven’ without any real competition to help achieve better cost efficiencies.

New Brunswick student transportation costs, we found, were largely driven by capital replacement cost recovery and government employee contracts with little or no private contracting. Consolidating schools only compounds the problem by extending daily routes and piling-on additional, incremental busing costs.

schoolbusstopsignIf student transportation research in Ontario and Alberta are any guide, the absence of competitive bidding for bus contracts, over time, results in higher per student costs that take a bigger and bigger bite out of education budgets.  Since the late 1980s, leading Canadian school boards, beginning in Ottawa and York Region, have, on their own, created regional transportation authorities. Since 2006, all of Ontario’s 72 boards have integrated, shared bus services, managed by twenty-two “consortia” with a mandate to contain costs and achieve energy efficiencies.

Mounting provincial deficits and tightening education budgets suggest that New Brunswick and its school districts should look first to educational support services in pursuit of cost savings. There is much that can be achieved in student transportation reform without compromising student safety.

Combining government-run and contracted services and providing incentives to form joint transportation service authorities is a proven success, as demonstrated in both Alberta and Ontario. Once that is achieved, the harder work begins in implementing improved transportation cost management systems and a whole range of new business practices based upon the latest advances in data collection/analysis, route scheduling software, energy efficiency, and improved point-of-service daily operations.

We are now calling upon the N.B. government and school districts to act upon the following practical, no-nonsense recommendations: embrace a province-wide joint services strategy, permitting School Districts to jointly manage their own student transportation services; review potential cost efficiencies in rural busing and special education services; utilize the latest technology to improve route management and reduce duplication of services; adopt a ‘walkable schools’ plan encouraging active transportation; initiate two pilot student services consortia (urban and rural) to model best practice; and implement reliable performance metrics.  Once these initiatives are underway, authorize regular provincial audits to benchmark and track student transportation service levels.

Where does bilingualism begin for students in public education — at the doorstep or the school entrance? What’s the real impact of bilingual duality on the capacity of school districts to achieve cost and energy efficiencies? If separate transportation is official provincial policy, then is co-mingling on the sidewalks and bike trails subject to that same policy? Is New Brunswick alone in facing such public policy challenges? 

 

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For the past three months, parents of students attending Park West School in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park have been in a state of upheaval. Concerned parents now find themselves essentially ensnared in a Boundary Review Process, managed by the Chief Superintendent, excluding the elected board, and providing political cover for “rezoning students” and implementing pre-determined school grade reconfiguration plans.

ParkWestSChoolBoundary Reviews are often contentious because they are a concrete demonstration of the coercive power of the education state. Under provincial Education Acts, school boards are entrusted with establishing school attendance zones (catchment areas) and “assigning students to various schools” in the district. Some boards spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy on enforcing attendance zones and on balancing “the catchment population with the capacity of the school.”

Major metropolitan boards in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Toronto have learned to become more flexible, establishing free attendance zones and broadening the range of school choice for parents. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) is more representative of the majority of school boards which invest much of their administrative time in re-engineering school communities to occupy vacant school spaces.

Most recently, the HRSB initiated an extensive 12 school boundary review process targeting two schools, Park West and Grosvenor Wentworth Park, deemed by the Superintendent and school officials  to have more than the optimum number of students. When the board’s real agenda, moving Park West’s Grades 7 to 9 students elsewhere, was eventually revealed, hundreds of Park West parents led by local Kumon Math manager Janet Lee, rose up in protest.

A clear majority of the Park West Parents are opposed to the enforced school reconfiguration and the shipping of their senior grades to a school some 45 minutes walk away.   While the school with 783 students is over capacity, it was never an issue until the board decided to “fix” the non-existent problem. School enrollment projections going forward, unearthed by the parents, show an actual decline of numbers and do not support the board’s preferred scenario.

The Boundary Review has proven just as divisive as a school closure process. A Save Park West School P-9 petition was posted on Change.org and generated a strong response from aggrieved parents and community members. Former HRSB board member, Dr. David Cameron, spoke out against the disruptive intervention in a healthy, harmonious and diverse school community. On April 13, 2013, Save Park West advocate Janet Lee issued a circular letter to 26 public officials and reporters lambasting the process.

Save Park West parents have expanded their critique to include the entire HRSB Boundary Review process. The 12-school Boundary Review Committee, appointed by the Superintendent, is, by all accounts, a totally staff-driven exercise, pitting parents from 10 schools against the two reps whose schools face reconfiguration or eventual closure. They have also discovered that this arbitrary, autocratic process has already claimed two earlier school victims, Cavalier Drive (P-9) and Bedford South (P-9), in the 2011-12 cycle of reviews.

A close-up look at HRSB Policy B.003- Creating School Populations (2013), demonstrates that it’s the Superintendent’s preferred process with decision-making criteria right out of a facilities planning manual. Nowhere is the Process really spelled out; instead the policy assigns total control to the Superintendent, who makes the recommendation to the board. Even the recently abandoned Nova Scotia School Review process provided more rights to parents and community representatives.

Serious concerns being raised about the fairness and legitimacy of the Boundary Review process are simply dismissed by the sitting HRSB Board Chair  as “board bashing.” The reality is quite different when you carefully consider the 11 different community complaints registered by Park West School parents, documenting a total lack of transparency, due process, and public legitimacy. The whole process is being tested and, like the provincial SChool Review Process, is slowly being exposed and discredited.

School Boundary Reviews are by their very nature often disputed  and potentially divisive. The Halifax Board model, however, is particularly so because it is so draconian and undemocratic compared to that of many other school boards. Back in 2011, former Lower Sackville trustee Donna Hubbard actually divulged that, in proposing grade configuration changes, she was only acting at the behest of the Superintendent and staff. More recently, Board member Sheryl Blumenthal-Harrison publicly disclosed that she had been warned to stay out of the Park West dispute or she was liable to “lose her vote at the Board table.”

The Halton Catholic District School Board’s policy, No. I-29, School Boundary Review Process (2003) is far superior in terms of democratic principles and governance practices.  The Board, rather than the Superintendent, oversees the whole process and elected Board members (trustees) are “invited to attend committee and community consultation session meetings as observers.”  While such processes are not perfect, they are light years ahead of the HRSB School Boundary Review policy in terms of their respect for the rights of parents to full, fair and unfettered participation in any matter directly impacting upon the future of their school.

Why are School Boundary Reviews so potentially divisive and damaging to school communities?  What’s the real purpose of “zoning students” and “reconfiguring schools”?  Are there situations when school boundary realignments might make good sense?  Is it time for large urban boards to consider free attendance zones and authorizing more cross-boundary students?

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In September 2010. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board moved its Central Administrative Office from downtown Dartmouth to a Corporate Industrial Park in Burnside, on the city’s outskirts.   The decision to expand the central office to 73,000 square feet for some $1 million more in annual leasing costs was justified on the grounds that the board had, it was only then revealed, accumulated a $4.3 million surplus for this purpose. Few, at the time, questioned the move or what it signified as a concrete example of the so-called “controlling politics” of the “new managerialism” in public education.

MakingSchoolsWorkCentralizing the administration was assumed to be necessary to advance  what OISE’s Dr. Ben Levin champions as “macro-directions” and presumably to minimize the dissonance and local resistance emanating from “micropolitics” in the schools.  The then Chair of the Board Irvine Carvery  defended the move as sound financially and claimed that the then Chief Superintendent Carole Olsen saw the need for a much bigger central headquarters to facilitate large scale professional developmemt activities.   Some 30 years after the advent of School-Based Management (SBM), this school board, like many across North America, remained wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service.

School-Based Management arrived in Canada in the early 1970s when an American educator, Dr. Rolland Jones, began experimenting with the concept as Superintendent of the Edmonton Public School Board.  Described as “a visionary 20 years ahead of his times,” he favoured local decision-making and espoused “site-based budgeting.”  From 1976 until 1995, his successor Michael Strembitsky  and school planner Alan Parry  effectively dismantled a centrally-managed school system  and operationalized school-based decision-masking.

A determined team of administrators led by Strembitsky  implemented a robust plan shifting more responsibility to local schools, increasing local budget allocations to schools from 2% to 82% of provincial education dollars.  While not entirely perfected,  the decentralized approach, in the words of Board Chair Joan Cowling, was “a dramatic improvement in the way schools were administered” and more attuned to school-level needs. 

The Edmonton Model was further developed by Strembitsky’s successor, Superintendent Angus McBeath.  School choice was introduced and implemented along with site-based budgeting.  Students and parents were offered their choice of schools within the city and, by 2003, 62% of high schoolers and 54% of junior high students attended schools outside their attendance zones.  A depopulating decaying high school was transformed into an arts academy and its enrolment rebounded, largely at the expense of competing private schools.  An energy conservation initiative, entrusted to local schools, netted $2 million at year in savings.  Publishing school-by-school student achievement results improved overall test scores.  While it was a top-down reform initiative, the key to its success, according to McBeath, lay in the strong support it engendered among “allies outside the educational system.”

After a flurry of school-based management initiatives in the mid-1990s, including some school districts in Ontario and Nova Scotia, school administrators pulled back from the whole approach.   Centralization and administrative build-up proved to be powerful forces, strengthened by the consolidation of  school boards, the introduction of system-wide testing, the proliferation of special programs, and the spread of program consultants.  Student loads per teacher, known as Total Student Loads (TSLs), according to William G. Ouchi, actually rose in junior and senior high schools.  Superintendents acquired more power by increasing the size of their headquarters staffs, created more non-teaching positions, and this, in turn, led teachers to abandon the classroom.  A 1997 American research study revealed that only 43% of district employees were regularly engaged in classroom teaching.

The Edmonton Education Model attracted many public accolades but few followers in the ranks of North American educational administration.  In his 2008 book Making Schools Work , Ouchi, a leading UCLA management professor,  reported that Edmonton had “the best-run schools” compared to those of many other North American cities. He credited Edmonton’s educational leadership in school-based management with engineering a “revolution” and charting the way for other school systems to escape educational mediocrity and under-performance.

While North American educational leaders still shy away from School-Based Management, it is now undergoing a renaissance  in the developing world where school systems are seeking immediate “turnaround” educational reforms.   Since 2003, The World Bank has been particularly active in supporting and funding SBM initiatives in  countries like Kenya, Indonesia, Nepal, and Senegal. A recent international study, commissioned by the World Bank (2011) , claimed that “education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.” (p. 87). In spite of some successes, the study found “ambiguous results” in countries where “elite capture” was a problem and “teachers and unions” resisted ceding more control to “parents and community members.”

Senior administrators who promote the latest educational panacea known as ”distributed leadership” remain surprisingly resistant to a more democratic, school-level, decision-making model.  Yet more open minded educators like New Yorker Thomas Whitby, initiator of #Edchat, and Australian researcher Bruce Johnson continue to muse about the unsettling impact of centralizing administration on the quality and tone of teaching and learning in schools.

Sympathetic observers like Whitby express concern over teacher -administrators who get swept up in the “Education Center world” and managerial matters and lose touch with the classroom,  In Australia, Johnson contends that ”bureaucratic managerialism” has been used to “construct a seemingly irresistible top-down juggernaut of reform that largely excludes the possibility or desirability of local agency.”  School-based management has considerable appeal because it fosters a ”positive politics” of negotiation, collaboration, and conflict resolution to address issues of local concern in schools.”  He longs for the day when teachers, as well as parents, could enjoy a more “positive framework” with ongoing opportunities to participate in the “school improvement journey.” (p. 23)

What’s feeding the continued growth of central administration in K-12 public education?  Why has the Edmonton Model of school-based management won so few converts among senior educational administrators?  Can “distributed leadership” ever be achieved without ceding some control and responsibilities to school-level principals and parent-community councils?  What stands in the way of achieving a more locally-accountable, school-based system?

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