Archive for the ‘School Boards’ Category

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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Elected school boards in Canada’s provincial school systems are gradually becoming “corporate boards.”  Today many elected Canadian boards are almost indistinguishable from senior administration and increasingly coming to think, act, and react like corporate entities inclined toward protecting their interests and defending their ‘little empires’.  Slowly, over the past three decades, elected school boards have been transformed, adopting strict “policy governance” models, succumbing to provincial centralization, and, in some cases, shrinking away from responsible, democratic trusteeship.

Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex, Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) is now leading the movement chipping away at what’s left of local democratic decision-making in public education.  Her innocuous looking little Education Act amendment , NS Bill 131, the “School Board Members Duties Clarification Act,” introduced  November 15, 2012, directs elected members to “respect” the superintendent, legislates that they represent “the school board,”  and  promises to deepen the democratic deficit in public education.

School board members were once known as “school trustees” and expected to represent us, meaning local parents and taxpayers.  Today, the Education Department and province’s eight school boards are gradually implementing  a new corporate governance model turning elected boards into “rubber stamp” operations,  rendering individual school trustees  little more than ‘cheerleaders’ for the status quo, and promoting, in the words of Bill 131, “the achievement of all students.”

Nova Scotia may well be an extreme case.  Firing three elected boards in six years, placing them under one-person receivership, treating elected representatives like unruly class members, introducing sanctions for periodic misbehaviour, and now legislating a further reduction in duties, has done incalculable damage to the political legitimacy of elected boards.  It also reflects a complete misreading of the dire threat to local education democracy.

Elected school boards are now suffering from an advanced stage of “acclamation disease.”  In the October 2012 Nova Scotia municipal elections, only three of the province’s eight school boards remained democratically healthy, and two of them were cleansed through previous firings.  In the Annapolis Valley Board, school board candidates were acclaimed in 12 of the 14 districts and one seat remains unfilled.  Across the province, two-thirds of the seats were uncontested and only 155 candidates surfaced to contest 94 school board positions.

Strict policy governance rules, introduced in stages since 2010, are eating away at responsible, accountable school trusteeship.  They also stand in sharp contrast to the Nova Scotia Municipal Act giving “broad authority” to Councils and granting Councillors much broader powers defined “not narrowly and with undue strictness.”

The Canadian School Board Association and its president, Sandi Urban-Hall, are both aware of the imminent dangers, having commissioned a Memorial University research team to conduct a study of the impact of recent school board firings on school board governance and the effectiveness of such elected bodies.

The new Corporate Governance Model, popping-up in Canadian school boards, is completely out-of-step with current thinking in effective board governance.  “Shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making” advocated by Harvard University’s Richard Chait are now best governance practice in the public and non-profit sector. They not only produce better decisions, but serve to attract higher calibre board members with something significant to contribute to the organization.

Seven years ago, Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy faced a similar set of school board governance issues.  Instead of clamping down on elected school board members, he issued a remarkable  March 2006 policy paper entitled “Respect for Ontario School Trustees.”

Alarmed by record numbers of school board acclamations (54% in the 2003 election) and responding to legitimate Ontario Public School Boards Association concerns, the Education Partnership Roundtable recommended a completely different approach than the one chosen by Minister Jennex and her Deputy Minister Carole Olsen.

“The trustee role is widely under-appreciated and misunderstood,” the Ontario policy paper stated, before it “affirmed the standing” of school board trustees as “key decision-makers” exercising “five elements of educational oversight: effectiveness, efficiency, community engagement, ethics, and representation.”   The resulting 2009 Ontario reforms spelled out the roles of individual trustees, board chairs and directors of education and boards were mandated to produce multi-year plans for improving student outcomes.

Individual school trustees were fully recognized, in Ontario law, as distinct from administration. Instead of limiting the role, the Ministry of Education reaffirmed the mission-critical role of elected trustees in securing and sustaining “an essential trust agreement with parents and communities around the education and care of children.”

Today Ontario’s elected school board members are recognized for playing a key role in community engagement. Rather than being discouraged or obstructed in trying to work with School Advisory Councils, elected board members are supported in their efforts to work with, and through, school-based parent groups.

Instead of being channeled through the superintendents, the 2006 Ontario Roundtable expressed confidence in elected trustees, urging that they be guaranteed “openness and transparency,”  wide access to all “readily accessible information,”  and far more more autonomy to “ask questions” and actively engage in local policy-making.

Ontario’s Bill 177, passed into law as the Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act 2009, is certainly not perfect, but at least it defines the roles of individual board members ( 218.1) , board chair (218.4), and directors or superintendents of education (283.1). With a shared leadership model in place and mutual respect re-established, then it is good governance practice to mandate board members “to entrust the day-to-day management of the board to its staff through the superintendent of education.”

Public confidence is already badly shaken, but it is not too late to change direction.   It’s time to remove the muzzle and to learn from best governance practice.  Putting the “trust” back into the “school trustee” role and giving them back the right to speak up for parents and school communities is a far better way to restore vitality to the whole system.

Why do Elected School Boards actually exist, if not to represent parents, students and the public? What has happened to erode the hard-won tradition of local education democracy?  Is it already too late to restore responsible, accountable school trusteeship?  If not, where do we begin?

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Elected school trustees are perhaps the lowest rung on the ladder of Canadian local democratic governance.  Yet, for a civic-minded community of ‘do-gooders’,  they seem to get into a an awful lot of hot water and often make headlines across Canada for all the wrong reasons.  Some local trustees have been suspended for conflicts of interest or openly criticizing senior staff members in public; others have been found to be utterly incapable of overseeing gigantic financial operations. A few crackpots have sued their own school board over various matters.  In some provinces, such as Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Minister of Education has labelled the entire elected board “dysfunctional” and dismissed them from public office.

One leading school school board advocacy group, the Alberta School Boards Association, was so embarrassed by such matters that they went so far as to  produce a giant apologia, entitled “Trustees Behaving Badly,” published in in its December 2010 newsletter.   http://www.asba.ab.ca/natlegalnews/dec10/files/main_promo.html  The ASBA article not only reviewed the sordid litany of school trustee misbehaviour, but also felt compelled to provide professional advice to help school boards rein in “inappropriate school trustee behaviour” and reassure “their communities and electors that someone is minding the store.”

A wayward Calgary Catholic Board trustee, Michael O’Malley, was removed from office in 2007  for various offenses, including  breaches of confidentiality, costing taxpayers $750,000 in legal fees. In 2009-10, B.C.’s Langley School Board was investigated for poor financial controls, leaving taxpayers $13.5 million in the hole.   More recent school board woes in Ontario have centred on a succession of conflict of interest cases, virtually engulfing the Toronto District Catholic School Board. Three long-serving Toronto public school trustees were sued for conflict of interest on the  very eve of the October 2010 municipal elections.

Three times in the past five years Nova Scotia Ministers of Education have intervened — in Halifax, the Strait Region, and the South Shore — to dismiss the entire cast of elected school trustees. In each case, the Minister and Department claimed that the elected trustees had become “dysfunctional” and deserved to be dismissed from public office. Among those disposable trustees were a fair number of honest, public-spirited, and respected local citizens. Firing the trustees once, maybe, twice, possibly, but a third time —has not only rendered school boards a laughing stock, but made it patently obvious that the entire system of local education governance needs to be completely reformed if it is to survive much longer.

The real source of the “dysfunction” lies not so much with the personal deficiencies of  trustees, but with the straightjacket rules constraining their actions and rendering them politically impotent. Instead of trashing publicly elected trustees, it’s high time we looked at the Education Act and the strictly limited powers and responsibilities assigned to our elected representatives.

The Nova Scotia Education Act, unlike the Municipal Government Act, entrusts real authority to the Superintendents and strictly limits the powers and duties of our elected representatives.  Newly-elected school board members, flush with initial enthusiasm, quickly find themselves bound by a very restrictive code of conduct and behaviour, much like that of children in school. Individual trustees do not officially exist as policy initiators  and no role whatsoever is even assigned them in representing the interests and views of their constituents.  Most local municipal councillors would find such ‘class behaviour’ regulations laughable.     http://gov.ns.ca/JUST/regulations/regs/edmin.htm

The Good Governance Guidelines, produced by Howard Windsor for the reconstituted Halifax School Board in August 2008, are a major source of the dysfunction. The corporate governance model adopted is rather outdated, imposing  a very strict clinical, management-driven governance apparatus, separating  “policy” and “operations.” The role of the elected board is limited to hiring and evaluating the Superintendent, setting annual goals and priorities, developing written policies, overseeing board finances, and fulfilling other ‘clean-up’ duties.. http://www.hrsb.ns.ca/files/Downloads/pdf/board/Governance_Discussion_Paper.pdf    It is not a true model of “shared leadership” nor does it encourage any of what Harvard governance expert Richard Chait would term “generative thinking” and shared decision-making.

Two years later, Nova Scotia further tightened the reins and became the first province in Canada to introduce legislation to discipline individual trustees.  Since 2010, an Oath of Office (Schedule C) and Code of Ethics (Schedule D) has been added to the provincial regulations. Stricter governance guidelines have been a total bust, leaving elected trustees with far less to do and much more to complain about in the performance of their critical democratic role

Elected municipal councils, under the Nova Scotia Municipal Act, are granted “broad authority” and the province “respects their right to govern municipalities in whatever ways the councils consider appropriate” within their area of jurisdiction.  During the Municipal training sessions after the 2008 elections, newly –elected councillors were properly introduced to their representative roles and further assured that their powers were broadly defined and “not narrowly and with undue strictness.”

Devaluing the elected boards, labelling trustees dysfunctional, and subjecting them to a public flogging is no way to strengthen the democratic basis of our public education system.  Appointing another retired provincial bureaucrat to represent the concerns of local communities is a further slap in the face.

Without elected school boards, there is no real public accountability or transparency in the Primary to Grade 12 education system. Reforming local education governance should start with the Education Act and regulations – and focus on clarifying and strengthening the democratic powers of our local, elected representatives. In December 2009, Ontario at least recognized the problem and made an effort to improve school board effectiveness.  http://news.ontario.ca/edu/en/2009/12/school-board-governance-in-ontario-1.html  Only when this issue is fully addressed in all provinces can we insist that elected trustees hold the administration accountable for improving quality and standards.

Give elected trustees the right to speak up on behalf of their school communities at the Board instead of simply being the Board’s salesperson in the community. Unless and until elected trustees are simply given a more meaningful role and recognized as legitimate democratic representatives, you can expect recurrent governance crises in the future and more calls for abolishing all school boards.

Why do curious, independently-minded elected school trustees so often find themselves in hot water with senior administration and the provincial ministries?  What explains their tendency to go “rogue” or “dysfunctional”?  Would reforming the Education Act sections defining and limiting their roles make any real difference? 

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For the third time in the past five years, a Nova Scotia School Board has been fired by a provincial Minister of Education, a remarkable record for a province with only nine elected education boards.  Last year, Prince Edward Island Education Minister Doug Currie also wielded the axe, firing the entire Eastern PEI School Board in the wake of prolonged school closure skirmishes.

On Tuesday November 29, 2011, Nova Scotia’s Education Minister Ramona Jennex shocked everyone in Atlantic Canada by announcing that the elected South Shore Regional School Board (SSRSB) had been “fired” for breaching its code of ethics and proper governance practices.  Acting on a School Board Review report produced by Deloitte management consultants, she told the twelve member Board of Trustees in Bridgewater, NS, that they had been dismissed from office.  She also announced that the Board had not only been been sacked, but replaced with a senior educrat, Judith Sullivan-Corney, formerly a Deputy Minister with the Nova Scotia Government. (Media Advisory -“Minister Moves to Take Control of SSRSB” –  NSDoE, 29 Nov. 2011)

The Minister’s unilateral decision stunned the Chair of the SSRSB veteran Trustee Elliott Payzant, and his 12-member elected who had asked the Minister in June 2011 to audit their governance practices to clear the air.  The small Board, established in 2004 with only 32 schools and 7,400 students, had certainly captured the Minister’s attention. It all started in late February 2011 when the elected Trustees voted 10 to 2 to suspend the school closure review process affecting 12 of the 32 schools, overturning a staff recommendation. Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake was completely miffed, since the only two supporting the process were her Board Chair and Vice-Chair Gary Mailman, the Trustee supposedly overseeing governance matters.

The real catalyst for the public controversy was the South Shore weekly, The Progress Bulletin,which had used a Freedom of Information (FOIPOP) request to unearth hundreds of private e-mails suggesting improper governance practices.  Those revelations, covered extensively in the South Shore News and The Chronicle Herald, suggested that a group of 4 to 8 trustees were meeting and strategizing to save their community schools, in the wake of their controversial  earlier decision to close the historic Lunenburg Academy. When the e-mails were made public, it was also clear that  Trustee Karen Reinhardt and Board Chair Payzant  were both deeply involved in the behind-the-scenes politicking.       http://www.southshorenow.ca/archives/2011/072611/letters/index006.php

The initial Halifax Chronicle Herald editorial (Nov. 30, 2011), accepted the Minister’s decision and reasoning at face value.  Closer scrutiny of the Deloitte report (22 November 2011) led governance experts to draw different conclusions.  http://www.ednet.ns.ca/pdfdocs/school_boards/PerformanceReviewReportSSRSB.pdf   The Management Consultants hired by the DoE brought a corporate governance philosophy to their task, assessing the elected Board according to a clinical model seemingly unaware of the complexities and intricacies of local politics and the trustee’s representational role in the system.

The governance template used to assess the South Shore Board reflected the same managerial orientation.  By assuming that the Superintendent was the “gatekeeper” and source of  all agenda information, the political actions of trustees taking autonomous policy positions and giving voice to public concerns were seen as destabilizing for the system.  Some elected trustees acted inappropriately, particularly in the realm of  conflict of interest, and deserved sanctions. On three of six criteria, the elected Board was found in contravention of the governance regulations, but they were judged to be following provincial budget and policy directives.  None of the actual recommendations specifically referenced dismissing the entire board.  That move was clearly the Minister’s decision.

The “One-Woman-Board,” Ms. Sullivan-Corney, received a slap happy reception from the Superintendent and senior staff in the Bridgewater Board Office. That response stood in stark contrast to the growing media criticism and the chill felt by South Shore parents left without trustees in the local communities.  Four or five of the “fired” Trustees were highly respected local citizens, most notably Marg Forbes of Bridgewater and Lunenburg physician Dr. John Jenkins.  Some Trustees like Reinhardt were mavericks who stood up strongly for local communities.

Denied their public voice, South Shore parents were not about to be silenced by the Minister or the Superintendent. Within three days, groups of parents in Hebbville, Petite Riviere, Chester, and Lunenburg began to complain loudly about the decision, expressing fear that many of the 12 threatened schools would now be closed.  Parent Sherry Doucet of Hebbville spoke out in The Chronicle Herald  and Michelle Wamboldt of Petite Riviere was galvanized into action, pushing forward with plans to hold a Small School Summit on January 21, 2012 at the NSCC in Bridgewater.    http://thechronicleherald.mobi/novascotia/38279-south-shore-parents-fear-schools-will-be-closed-after-all

Previous decisions to fire Nova Scotia school boards, taken in 2006 ( HalifaxRSB and StraitRSB) by former Education Minister Karen Casey, went far more smoothly. Defenders of small schools now carry much more influence, the “dismissed” Trustees won far more sympathy among the public — and the usual public backlash against all School Boards fizzled when the real underlying issues surfaced.

Public statements by Vic Fleury, Chair of the NSSBA, that the School Board Association was never consulted before the axe fell simply added fuel to the fire. Faced with mounting public concern, the Nova Scotia Department of Education was compelled, a week later, to send out 24,000 leaflets by mail in an attempt to reassure worried parents and families.  A one-woman-board was now presented as the answer for those seeking to be heard. http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/40544-education-department-reassures-parents-after-school-board%E2%80%99s-firing

How common in North America is the practice of dismissing elected School Boards?  Why have Nova Scotia Education Ministers come to use that power with such frequency?  What is wrong with the School Board governance model as presently conceived in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island?  What can be done to reform school board governance and, at the same time, to restore public confidence in local education democracy?

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You cannot get more American than George Washington, the President who adorns the One Dollar bill emblazoned with “In God We Trust.” Yet in 1992 he came under attack when the parents and staff at a New Orleans school succeeded in replacing his name with that of Dr. Charles Drew, a noted black physician. The decision stemmed from a controversial Board policy calling for the renaming of all schools named after former slave owners or others who did not respect “equal opportunity for all.” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/race_relations/july-dec97/schools_11-25.html

The renaming schools controversy spread quickly to other cities and towns. Across the United States there were then 450 schools named for George Washington, including George Washington University in D.C. Hundreds of other schools were identified because they were named after American presidents who owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason.

Renaming schools to defrock former historical notables opens up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ and has sparked controversies in many school districts. Social justice advocates and special interest groups are usually the instigators and the “sanitizers” all claim to be “correcting past wrongs.” Charges of racism, genocide, and inhuman cruelty are heaped upon the dead and are too often simply accepted without much scrutiny. Few citizens dare to object, fearing vilification at the hands of the liberal media or retaliation from what remains of the politically correct (PC) vigilantes.

The infamous American school renaming controversy came to a head in a memorable PBS Newshour Special, November 25, 1997, focusing on “Re-assessing Civic Symbols.” It all died down when leading American historians entered the fray and cooler heads finally prevailed.

On PBS Newshour, Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke out strongly against the move to eradicate Washington’s name because it threatened to arouse once buried “tribalism” and failed to recognize that “history is a combination of forces.” Author Haynes Johnson declared that “to equate George Washington to Adolf Hitler is absurd…it’s political correctness run wild.” Even Cornel West, author of Restoring Hope, was uncomfortable with actions than might “demonize Washington” and warned against engaging in “a fetish of symbols.”

Since the late 1990s, school renaming controversies have erupted periodically in the United States more than in Canada. The meteoric rise of Barak Obama in 2008-09 prompted a spate of U.S. schools to appropriate his name. Student Noah Horowitz created a furor in Houston, Texas, in August and September 2009, when he when he lead a spirited campaign to remove the names of six Confederate leaders from HISD schools. http://wn.com/Noah_Horwitz A valiant attempt in January 2011 to rename Rochester High School after U.S. Army 1st Lt. Adam Malson, an Iraq War hero, was blocked because it violated school district policy.

The old controversy is back in the education news. Removing the name of Halifax’s founder, Edward Cornwallis, from the masthead of a South End junior high school is perhaps the most recent and blatant example. http://thechronicleherald.ca/Front/1249921.html The case against Cornwallis hangs on the fact that he issued a 1749 proclamation putting a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women, and children.

On that basis, the appointed Mi’kmaq Trustee, Kirk Arsenault, succeeded in convincing the elected Halifax School Board to remove Cornwallis’ name. No one spoke against the move and a jubilant Arsenault now claims that “anything that’s named after Edward Cornwallis needs to be changed.”

The HRSB’s unanimous decision has not only opened the door to renaming other public monuments and streets, but implicitly endorsed Mi’kmaq author Daniel N. Paul’s 25-year crusade to vilify Cornwallis and the so-called “European ruling classes” for “their efforts to destroy the Amerindians.” http://www.danielnpaul.com/WeWereNotTheSavages-Mi%27kmaqHistory.html

Renaming the school is not a trifling matter. Cornwallis was the British military officer credited with founding Halifax in 1749 with some 2,576 white settlers. He commanded the British forces in the midst of a period of frontier warfare where the British, French and Mi’kmaq repeatedly killed combatants, including women, children and babies. A downtown street, local park, and famous statue also bear his name.

Cornwallis did proclaim a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women, and children. What is problematic, however, is whether such an action, undertaken in a state of brutal frontier warfare, was that unusual and, indeed, whether 18th century military commanders should be judged by modern standards.

Much of the Mi’kmaq claim is presented in Paul’s 1993 book We Were Not the Savages. Paul’s book contends that the British and specifically Cornwallis were guilty of waging “genocide” and then compares Cornwallis’s actions with Adolf Hitler’s “ extermination of most of Europe’s Jews.”

Such charges certainly arouse the passions and draw much-needed attention to the larger historical context. Settling and defending Halifax was part of a European 18th century “conquest” of the Americas, but Cornwallis’s actions were not appreciably different those of other governors who offered “scalp bounties” and committed atrocities in times of colonial frontier warfare.

Paul’s analysis of Cornwallis is incredibly one-sided and enjoys little support among North American historians. Halifax’s founder has been lauded for his choice of the Citadel Hill site, organizing the first government, and setting up a courts system modelled after Virginia. http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?BioId=35941 Such achievements mean little to Arsenault, Paul and the sanitizers.

The Mi’kmaq claim is not supported in John E. Grenier’s 2008 book The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760. In it, Cornwallis is depicted as a British colonial official who used “brutal but effective measures” to “ wrest control of Nova Scotia from French and Indian enemies who were no less ruthless.”

Basing public policy on re-writing history can only lead to further social injustices. The distinguished Canadian historian J. L. Granatstein put it best: “You can’t apply today’s standards to people in the past. That just gets silly.” http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=n7231269

What motivates the sanitizers in their campaigns to change school names? Why are parents and the public so inclined to accept the “demonization” of historical figures at face value? If we continue to judge past military or civic figures by present-day standards, where will it end?

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Public consultation in education is now mostly formalized, increasingly professionally-managed, and too often perfunctory. Concerned parents and citizens fighting school closures or raising “mission-critical” issues are invited to a formal school board meeting, given 5 minutes at the microphone and politely thanked for coming. School trustees listen, but do they hear? You never know and that simply adds to your sense of unease.

Telling tales “out of school” used to be frowned upon in education. Just as “tattle-tales” were not welcome on the playground, grumbling about the system has always tended to occur in around the coffee machine, in the parking lot, or inside local donut shops.

Now the official “education partners” in Nova Scotia and elsewhere are out to change all that by redefining what “Telling Tales” really means. With the launch of their cheery and attractive new website, “Get Educated,” public school parents are invited to tell “TRUE STORIES about the positive impact of the P -12 education system in Nova Scotia.” ( http://www.nstalesoutofschool.ca)

School boards and key stakeholders are adept at making it look like they are open to comment and feedback from parents and taxpayers. Upon closer scrutiny, that is not exactly what the promoters of the system have in mind. You are invited to “register” and then asked to submit only personal anecdotes about what a great system we have here in Nova Scotia.

Happy talk is the currency of education officialdom. What’s new about the Nova Scotia initiative is that the “team” of cheerleaders has expanded. In 2009-10, the Nova Scotia coalition that launched the infamous “Save Grade 2” public relations exercise included the organized voices of school boards, teacher unions, and senior administrators. This time around, the Nova Scotia Federation of Home and School Associations is on board.

When the Canadian provincial common school systems were founded in the mid-19th century, they claimed to provide “education for all” and sought to implant the sturdy values of honest effort and industriousness. Some idealists believed that the system was also capable of inculcating democratic values and good citizenship.

School board and “system partner” PR exercises demonstrate just how far we have drifted from those founding ideals. Openness and public participation are now viewed as terribly threatening. Only those parents who pass a ‘loyalty test” are welcome to register their opinions.

School systems under stress tend to block out not only unpleasant messages, but also constructive criticism. Three years ago, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, based in Halifax, sponsored a Public Lecture series on “Trust in Education.” That ground-breaking series pointed out how supporters of public education could restore “public trust” in the system.

Public consultation exercises fly completely in the face of the Centre’s findings and recommendations. Telling the unvarnished truth and admitting your mistakes and shortcomings was identified by former McGill University president Dr. Bernard Shapiro and others as the fundamental starting point in recovering public confidence.

Since the “Powers that Be” in public education only welcome happy talk, it’s left to concerned parent and citizen groups to organize their own PUblic Forums and rallies to give parents and citizens a real opportunity to be heard and an outlet for their views, good, bad, or ugly (within reason).

That is what motivated us to organize a Public Forum on “Putting Students First and Fixing our Schools” (Monday March 28, 2011) at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, 6199 Chebucto Road, Halifax. (www.aims.ca)

Concerned parents and taxpayers have real stories to tell about our schools and need opportunities to voice them. It’s not new. That’s what public education is supposed to be all about. It’s high time we put students first in education.

That leads us to the Big Question: Why does Big Education seek to channel and limit public input on critical educational issues? Have perfunctory public presentations and “screened entry” websites all but replaced honest, open, frank public discussion? And what can be done to restore the public voice in today’s bureaucratic education state?

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School boards were established for a purpose.  Since the advent of the public school system, school boards have existed to provide a measure of local control over our tax-supported schools. Today the School Board system of governance founded upon elected school trustees is either in fragile condition or threatened with extinction. A recent feature article in The Globe and Mail, written by Kate Hammer (July 17, 2010), posed the whole question bluntly: “should governments close our school boards?” ( http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/should-governments-close-our-school-boards/article1643119/) Most Canadians probably favour the idea, and especially those with no children in the system. Few bother to examine the real impact of such a move on public accountability in education.

Cutting the size of government is popular these days.  School board reduction or total elimination is on the public agenda as citizens see it as an obvious cost-saving measure. Regional or district school boards have become remote to most citizens and taxpayers. In the 1990s, Ontario school boards lost their budgetary authority and elected Trustees were rendered toothless.  New Brunswick abolished school boards entirely, only to backtrack by establishing District Education Councils populated by well-meaning volunteers.

Local education democracy has faded over time. Robert Harris’ famous 1885 painting, “Meeting of School Trustees,” harkens back to a period when Trustees were at the very centre of the whole enterprise.  School consolidation and county school boards produced a dramatic shift in the locus of decision-making power away from local communities.  Today the bureaucratic education state is omnipresent.  When parent concerns are rebuffed by local principals, they have virtually nowhere to turn. Local democratic control has eroded to the point where many now call for the complete abolition of the current system based upon School Boards and elected bodies of Trustees.

Elected Trustees are now in a fight for political survival. With declining enrolments and aging populations, most provinces are looking for ways to reduce education expenditures. Governments have been slowly chipping away at school board authority, taking advantage of weakly-led boards known for political posturing and nonsensical debates.  Salaries and office budgets are now subject to more controls and provincial grants come with more strings attached.

School boards get little respect in Nova Scotia. In December 2006, Education Minister Karen Casey “fired” the entire 13-member Halifax Regional School Board for its petty squabbling ways and then replaced the Board with a retired civil servant, Howard Windsor, acting as a “one-man School Board.  The Strait Regional School Board in eastern Nova Scotia suffered the same fate.  When the two Nova Scotia boards were restored in October 2008, the Superintendents exercised greater control and elected Trustees operated under guidelines befitting system “cheerleaders.”

Stripped of tax raising powers, today’s elected School Board trustees are basically limited to advocacy and “rubber-stamping” monthly staff reports.  A new Ontario education law  blocks trustees from criticizing their board’s decisions.  In Ontario’s Bluewater Board, the elected trustees have proven so ineffective that a public advocacy group, Mended, has all but replaced them as the credible voice of the people.

Why not replace Trustees with district or school parent councils?  Prominent conservative think tanks such as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) now favour replacing School Boards with School Advisory Councils (SACs) vested with expanded powers.  AIMS president Charles Cirtwill contends that New Zealand and the Edmonton Public School Board prove that its time to “SAC” our school boards.  New Brunswick’s District Education Council (DEC) system, on the other hand, has been plagued with problems. In July 2009, three members of NB’s District 2 District Education Council (Mary Laltoo, David Matthews,and Pat Crawford) resigned decrying the DEC governance model as a sham, with few real decision-making powers. In a joint declaration, the three dissenters claimed that they refused to remain as “part of a farse that is sold to the public as local governance.”

The central questions cannot be skirted any longer:  Who speaks for the public in education? With School Boards housed in central offices far removed from most school communities, how can we preserve the vital principle of democratic control over decision-making?  Are School Governing Councils the ultimate answer?  If so, who provides the coordination across school regions? Most importantly, without School Boards, where’s the public accountability in education?

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