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“Restructuring education” was a popular reform nostrum that dominated North American K-12 school reform in the early to mid 1990s. Emerging as a stepchild of the “Reinventing Government” movement, it was driven by a reform impulse to introduce school-based management as a means of busting the bureaucracy that dominated public education systems.  Centralization, consolidation, and bureaucracy eventually triumphed, aided and abetted by corporate managerialism, testing, and accountability. Twenty years on, it’s time to take a closer look at why decentralization  capsized and what lessons can be learned from the whole venture.

Today centralization is far advanced in all ten Canadian provincial education systems. A study for the Canadian School Boards Association, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda” (Sheppard et al. 2013, 42).

School board trustees, once the bulwark of local school accountability, have been rendered almost powerless through a succession of “corporate model” governance reforms.  Two research studies in 2013 and 2016 produced by Gerald Galway and Bruce Sheppard demonstrated conclusively that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance” (Galway et al. 2013, 27–28). Elected school boards subscribing to a corporate policy-making model have also tended to stifle trustee autonomy and to narrow the scope of local, community decision-making (Bennett 2012).

Community-school-based management was first implemented in Canada some 40 years ago in the Edmonton public schools by newly appointed superintendent Mike Strembitsky. In the words of former teachers’ union president Karen Beaton, Strembitsky’s innovation “turned the entire concept of the district upside down” (Neal 1991, 4; see also Ouchi 2008, 24). Adopting a completely new approach, he embarked on an initiative to give self-governance to principals and schools through the decentralization of decisions from the district office to the school. 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” (Coleman 1984, 25). Most of the transfers have involved school-based budgeting and resource-allocation decisions, but the basic principle is also applied to all educational decisions.

Decentralized education governance was also implemented in Australia and New Zealand as well as in American cities, including Seattle, Washington and Houston, Texas.  From the 1990s until 2001 the decentralized model was fully established in both US cities and piloted in a few Canadian provinces, including Quebec and Nova Scotia. 

Since the publication of William G. Ouchi’s Making Schools Work (2008), school reformers have been more attuned to the centralizing tendencies of education systems and the advantages of school-based management. Those lessons have been absorbed and implemented in innovative systems around the globe; in particular, they have been adopted by the World Bank in its international educational decentralization development projects. One 2005 World Bank study perhaps put it best: “a service education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.”

Introducing education restructuring in Nova Scotia in the mid-1990s proved to be impossible, given the intransigence and passive resistance of school administrators, including anxious school principals.

Three decentralized Governance Models were proposed in a 1994 NSDE Discussion paper and all embraced “school-based management” with school councils at each school site, ranging along the continuum from purely advisory councils to school council-school board shared leadership to totally decentralized school-based local governance. Much more educational authority and responsibility was to be transferred from school districts to the school-level and vested in school councils.  Those local councils were to have authority to make decisions in ten specified areas, including setting school priorities, developing a school budget and improvement plans, making recommendations on the hiring and dismissing of principals, appointing principals and staff, and producing community accountability reports.

A 1995 Nova Scotia Education Horizons report spelled out actual plans for school council governance and the reduction of school district structures from 22 regional boards to either five or seven, complete with illustrative maps and district-to-district student enrolment data. The Dr. John Savage government followed through on school district reduction, but gave ground on entrusting so much authority to school-level councils.  School Advisory Councils (SACs), established in 1995, provided periodic advice and improved school-community communications, but did little to shift the locus of education decision-making.

School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole K-12 school system. Closing schools has led to bigger elementary and secondary school plants and administrators now routinely refer to their schools as “buildings.” Since 1995, School Advisory Councils (SACs) have struggled and floundered, most functioning under the thumb of principals and some competing with holdover home and school groups for legitimacy and recognition. Today, scanning school websites, you will look in vain for the names and contact information for anyone on the school advisory councils. If you inquire about the SAC, you are immediately referred to the school principal.

Provincial and regional school boards, as presently constituted, have completely lost their democratic legitimacy. and it’s time to replace them with a far more responsible, grounded and accountable system of school community-based governance. Like most informed parents, engaged citizens, and awakened communities, small school advocates find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.

Abolishing school boards altogether or conducting provincial reviews of school closure regulations do not really change the situation – our P-12 school system operates more to serve those in charge than those it purportedly serves – children, parents, and local communities.  The time for restructuring education is now.

Why does education restructuring to decentralize school decision-making authority remain a vision beyond reach?  Whatever happened to the School-Based Management model successfully implemented in Edmonton Public Schools? What’s the connection between school-based management and effective local school governance?  How can we clear away the obstructions and obstacles and win the support of the educators who inhabit our schools? 

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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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Regional school boards in Atlantic Canada like the Quebec English language boards are slowly dying of natural causes. The province of New Brunswick abolished elected school boards in March 1996, and they were eventually replaced by greatly weakened elected District Education Councils. More recently, Newfoundland/Labrador and Prince Edward Island (PEI) sacked elected boards and reverted to two provincial authorities, one each for English language and French language schools. In November 2015, PEI eliminated the one remaining English-language board and replaced it with an alternative parent consultation process.

schoolboardelectionsnssbaEight elected regional school boards are still standing in Nova Scotia, but their days may be numbered.  With the October 15 2015 municipal election on the horizon, the election of regional school board members has dropped completely off the public radar. That’s mostly because of the virulent spread of a potentially terminal democratic condition – acclamation disease.

Since 2012, when less than 40 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots for school board members, it’s much further advanced, especially outside Halifax. Surveying Nova Scotia’s eight school boards, 61 out of 97 school trustee positions (62.7%) will be uncontested and settled by “acclamation.”  Without the Halifax Regional School Board, some two out of every three (65.9%) of the seats failed to attract more than one candidate.

The Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) 2016 campaign to drum up interest in school board elections has been a complete bust. A recent round of School Board candidate sessions, run by NSSBA independent of N.S. Municipal Affairs, for some reason, has netted fewer candidates than the last time. That glitzy website, School Board Elections.ca, intended to showcase democratic vitality, merely advertises the extent of the acclamation disease from board to board.

The drying-up of interest in running for school board seats could not have come at a worse time for those, like me, who still believe in local education democracy and legitimate public accountability.

Sparked by the November 2015 P.E.I. decision to completely eliminate the English language board, a 2016 N.S. Liberal Party AGM resolution on abolishing boards, presented by Halifax Region Liberals, not only passed, but attracted notable media attention. The official party policy calls upon the McNeil government to take immediate action to “eliminate our English Language Boards and replace them with a single provincial board with responsibility to advise government on matters related to public schools and education of importance to parents and the people of Nova Scotia.” It also upholds democratic principles in urging the Liberal cabinet to “study and implement other mechanisms to ensure that parents find avenues to have their voices heard within the management of their local school.”

Education Minister Karen Casey, clearly caught off-guard by the party uprising, was quick to comment that such resolutions were not binding upon the government. When the Legislature’s Public Accounts Committee reviewed serious concerns raised by the Provincial Auditor General over board accountability, the Liberal majority on that committee made no mention of the life expectancy of the boards themselves.

The NSSBA is proving utterly incapable of making the case for local democratic control over what goes on in our P-12 public schools. The NSSBA’s School Board Candidate training kit contained a Q and A resource sheet that did not include the most important question of all – “Why do we need Elected School Boards?”  Nor is anyone prepared to provide a clear, coherent answer.

Consolidating school board administration would produce significant savings, if it focused on reducing the regional board  bureaucracy which costs more than $36-million (2006-07) and employs 8 superintendents and 195 district administrators and consultants. Cutting all 97 elected trustees would only net about $1-million in savings, roughly equivalent to the cost of six senior administrators.

Public school electors tend to lump regional school administrators and elected trustees together when advocating for the abolition of school boards. Outside of Halifax, they also seem to have given up on “elected school board members” who no longer act like “trustees” accountable to the public.
Closing schools as a “school board member” does not win you many friends and, in rural and small town Nova Scotia, can land you in purgatory. Prospective candidates considering a run at office are simply driven-off by long serving incumbents, quietly derided as “board members for life.” Those unsinkable veterans are the strongest argument for “term limits.”

Saving local democratic control in education is worth fighting for, in spite of the example set by the current remote and largely unaccountable regional boards.  The current model has outlived its usefulness and needs to be completely schoolboardearmuffsreformed, root and branch.

It might help if the Education Minister and the NSSBA took the time to read and digest Dr. David McKinnon’s May 2016 study of School District Governance. His 92-page report identifies the real crux of the structural problem – the “role ambiguity” that plagues elected board members and renders them completely ineffective. He likens the existing elected regional board to a “rudderless ship” that “still floats, but wherever the winds and currents take it.”

Who represents the public in the K-12 school system is as clear as mud.  Constrained by the current School Board Governance model, elected members occupy ‘no person’s land’ and have been completely muzzled when it comes to speaking up for parents and local taxpayers.

Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer want to run for school board office? Elected school board members who dare to propose needed policy reforms or break ranks are sanctioned or disciplined for doing so.  For a measly stipend of $10,000 or so a year, you spend most of your time approving staff reports and implementing school reviews for closure. If elected boards are scrapped, the foreclosure sign will read “School Board Elections cancelled for lack of interest.”

Why are elected school boards imperiled in Nova Scotia and extinct in most of Atlantic Canada ? Is local democratic control worth preserving and rebuilding in the provincial school systems? Would turning the governance system upside down and investing in elected school-community councils improve the situation?  If so, where might we look for viable models of local democratic education governance? 

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School bus fleets remain an underutilized public resource and thousands of yellow buses sit idle for not only much of the school week, but for long periods of the calendar year. Most school districts consider those buses to be ‘school board property’ and continue to see transporting students and providing community transit as completely separate functions.  That remains the case even though rural and small town communities with aging populations are very under-served when it comes to alternatives to gas-guzzling private automobiles, vans and trucks.

SchoolBusMETJ16While school age populations are static or declining in most districts. communities are now responding to a growing aging population about to exert profound economic and social impacts, particularly in rural areas of Canada. Senior citizens use public transit more than any other age group, and the numbers of Canadians 65 or older will grow by 25 per cent from 2011 to 2031.

Developing improved rural transit services is emerging as a critical part of planning for the future.  Two of the greatest challenges in rural mobility, whether in Northern or Eastern Ontario, or most of the Prairie West and the Maritimes, are residents’ access to healthcare, shopping and seniors’ services, since many elderly citizens are unable to drive or cannot afford a car.

One new Ontario pilot project attracting a lot of attention is the Muskoka Extended Transit (MET) initiative. While major cities look to pour millions into subway and rapid rail systems, this rural district in Central Ontario is turning to school buses to help its citizens get around. Starting on January 12, 2016, three companies will be operating school buses weekly along seven routes connecting small villages to the larger communities of Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville in Muskoka. The initiative is being funded in part by a grant from the provincial ministry of transportation.

Muskoka’s year-round residents, numbering about 60,000, are a population much like that of rural Canada as a whole. The district also has a high proportion of seniors, with more people over 75 than under 19 years of age. Average incomes in Muskoka have slid from 91 per cent to 83 per cent of the provincial average over the past 10 years.  Two of the seven Muskoka bus routes, for example, transport seniors to Huntsville on Tuesdays, so seniors’ centres and health providers can schedule services to match demand. Other Ontario districts, such as Deseronto and Huron County, utilizing transit buses or rideshare systems, report high public demand for employment, education, and seniors’ services.

The idea of deploying school buses is one that could potentially be applied more widely in rural Canada: taking advantage of school buses sitting idle between picking up kids in the morning and dropping them back home in the afternoon. It was proposed in our AIMS research report, Education on Wheels, back in January 2015, but there was little take-up on the policy option.

Financial barriers do exist for rural transit models, since it can be difficult to justify providing a self-standing service carrying a relatively small number of passengers over sometimes long distances. The 2003 Durham Region Transportation Plan study, for that reason, recommended using demand-responsive services, including school buses, public para transit, van pools and group-chartered taxis. Of those options, school buses are emerging as the most viable for mid-day and late-afternoon route services.

Not much has happened in Maritime Canada since our Education on Wheels report. Today, one or two of Nova Scotia’s municipalities are experimenting on a small scale with using school buses, as strictly local initiatives, acting without much visible provincial support.

The Town and County of Antigonish launched their own Antigonish Community Transit service on September 15, 2014, and secured support from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities at the November 2014 UNSM Fall conference.  Community Wheels, a public/community transit service operating in and around Chester, Nova Scotia, has used a wheelchair accessible mini-bus to provide students with after-school service to access community and extra-curricular activities. The pioneering Kings Transit Service, connecting Wolfville and Brooklyn, NS, was suspended in September 2015 after the Town of Windsor and the municipality of West Hants pulled out, resulting in a 76 per cent reduction in funding for the route.

Many communities, aside from those in rural Ontario, consider maintaining separate public transit and student transportation systems as duplicative and wasteful. Community transit can also be a safe, affordable, and convenient supplement to traditional school buses, especially for middle and high-school students.

Instead of tethering yellow buses to limited school routes, it’s time to meet the pent-up demand for services in rural and small town Canada. Muskoka’s Extended Transit service (MET) shows that it can be done on a larger, more coordinated, region-wide scale. Sharing bus services between municipalities and school boards is an idea whose time has come. It should be part of any province-wide, integrated urban and rural development plan going forward.

Why are school buses sitting idle for much of the week and calendar year when there is a crying need to provide improved rural transit? Should school districts be looking at serving the aging population as student enrollments level off or decline in rural areas? What are the added advantages of incorporating school bus services into community transit ? What’s standing in the way of sharing services, partnering with local transit firms, and collaborating across silos in the public sector? 

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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.”

SchoolTrusteePattiBacchusThere’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?

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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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The mysterious hand of the Canadian Indian Act is still present in First Nations communities, and is particularly evident in the realm of education. Until the late 1960s, schooling for First Nations children and youth was essentially “assimilationist.” “The primary purpose of formal education,” as stated in the report of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “was to indoctrinate Aboriginal peoples into a Christian, European world view, thereby ‘civilizing’ them” (Canada 1996, vol. 3, chap. 5, 2). Since the publication of “Indian Control of Indian Education” by the National Indian Brotherhood in 1972, over 40 years ago, policy changes in the form of federal-local education agreements, authorized under SGAs, for the most part have only reinforced the status quo of top-down, albeit partially delegated, federal control over education (Fallon and Paquette 2012, 3).

AtleoandHarperConformity with mainstream society, competition, and preparation for the workforce were viewed as the only way forward for all Canadian children and youth, including Aboriginals. Such assumptions effectively limited the scope of First Nations children’s educational, cultural, and social life by failing to recognize the legitimacy of Aboriginal holistic learning and indigenous knowledge (Marie Battiste 2002). Policies advocating the assimilation of Aboriginal students and, later on, their integration into provincial or non-Aboriginal schools were the prescriptions for “normal” educational provisions and practices deemed necessary to integrate children and youth into a hierarchically ordered, pluralist state (J.D. Moon 1993 ).

Modifications to the Indian Act regime merely perpetuate the status quo in terms of federal dominance over First Nations peoples. In such a hierarchical social order, students are being prepared for a world still dominated by federal officials or indirectly managed by a chief and band council acting at the behest of the agents of non-Aboriginal society. Whatever their traditional authority might have been,” American political scientist J. Donald Moon once wrote, the chief has “come to owe his power mainly to his relationships to the ruling stratum” (Moon, 15).

Managed devolution of power over education to First Nations  amount to extending federal oversight in education governance. Authority is delegated sufficient to meet the minimum standard of First Nations control in principle, but not in actual practice. Since about 1980, federal policy has promoted First Nations control of education in the context of a model of integration in which First Nations students are permitted to enrol in provincial school systems offering educational services and programs.

In addition, First Nations control over education has been gradually ceded to delegated education authorities as part of a larger strategy of fostering economic development in First Nations communities. Although presented as a means of decolonization, the federal and provincial governments have promoted self-government and local control primarily as a way of encouraging First Nations to give up traditional ways and enter the market society. Such experiments in devolution, as Gerald Fallon and Jerry Paquette aptly observe, have merely substituted a new form of neo-colonialism” that is “deeply rooted in a denial of First Nations peoples’ capacity to formulate their own conceptions of person and society” (2012, 12).

Recent federal-local agreements negotiated as part of the devolution movement in Nova Scotia and British Columbia look promising, but — through control of the purse — actually might perpetuate the hegemony of the federal and provincial governments over First Nations communities. With a few exceptions, the SGAs provide limited devolution of power framed within what Fallon and Paquette term “the municipal model of self-government.” Some administrative autonomy is ceded, but only within limits set by outside educational authorities controlled by federal and, mostly, provincial governments.

Despite appropriating the public language of First Nations empowerment, the real changes necessary to extend authentic “Aboriginalization” of education seem to be absent on the ground in First Nations communities and their schools. A decade ago, a report by Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault aptly entitled Reclaiming the Circle of Learning and written for the Ontario Assembly of Chiefs, warned that history was in danger of repeating itself in that recent shifts in the direction of devolution did not amount to fundamental change (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2004).

The proposed 2013 First Nations Education Act was the latest mutation of devolution. Under the guise of supporting devolution, the federal government proposed to establish what amounted to a new system appropriating the provincial school board model, with significant strings attached. Despite the friendly sounding rhetoric, the legislation sought to fill the supposed void at the centre of the “non-system” of First Nations education (Canada 2013c). Confronted with what was depicted as a “fractured mirror” in education governance, Ottawa opted to nudge First Nations in the direction of creating more confederated boards to manage the more than 550 First Nations schools scattered across Canada’s ten provinces.

Introducing a school board model, however, likely would curtail, rather than advance, the movement to community-based schools. A study for the Canadian School Boards Association, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda” (Sheppard et al. 2013, 42).

In another paper, Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team claim that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance” (Galway et al. 2013, 27–28). Elected school boards subscribing to a corporate policy-making model have also tended to stifle trustee autonomy and to narrow the scope of local, community decision-making (Paul W. Bennett 2012).

The 2013 First Nations Education Act was rejected for good reason. Proposing conventional school board governance in First Nations communities will only impose a new set of system-wide standards and accountabilities while withholding curriculum autonomy and thwarting the introduction of holistic learning, Indigenous knowledge, and heritage languages.

*Adapted from Paul W. Bennett and Jonathan Anuik, Policy Research Paper, Northern Policy Institute (Sudbury and Thunder Bay, ON, forthcoming,  September 2014).

What lessons can be learned from the rejection of the 2013 Canadian First Nations Education Act?  Is the conventional image of First Nations education governance as a “fractured mirror” an accurate one?  Does the shelving of the federal intiative signal the death knell for top-down devolution? What’s stopping policy-makers from building a new model from the First Nations communities upward?

 

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