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Archive for the ‘School Trustees’ Category

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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Public education trends in K-12 schools across Canada can be difficult to track. Without an eagle eye and a swivel-head, the next epic “education crisis” can come and go without much public notice. Nor do Canadians have any real federal presence in education to either establish national standards or provide independent assessments of provincial or territorial school programs.

Gauging the upticks and downticks is still possible, in between the beats and before the self-repairing school system quickly returns to its normal rhythms. What follows is a look back at 2015 in Canadian education with an eye to the coming year.

Notable Upticks

Educational Reconciliation

TRCReconcilePosterThe release of Justice Murray Sinclair’s massive December 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, together with the appointment of Dr. Carolyn Bennett as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister, bode well for educational reconciliation and a satisfactory resumption of First Nations education reform. Establishing a stronger basis of trust, more stable federal funding, and more holistic, Indigenous-informed curricula, will go a long way to repairing the damage.

International Teaching Summit

The fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015), at the Banff Springs Hotel, March 29-30, 2015, was sponsored by the OECD Education Office, but it shied away from discussing PISA testing and instead focused on supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.” Chaired by short-lived Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, ISTP 2015 was clearly the work of OECD education director Andreas Schleicher, OISE eminence gris Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Out of the 400 delegates, most were actually Canadian officials or educators sponsored by provincial authorities and teaching unions.

Nova Scotia’s Three Rs Reform Plan

Public school students in Nova Scotia will focus more on mastering the fundamentals in mathematics and literacy, less on writing standardized tests under a N.S. January 2015 reform plan with the catchy title, The Three Rs: Renew, Refocus, Rebuild.  Delivered by Education Minister Karen Casey, the initiative responded to a blunt October 2014 provincial review that found half of Nova Scotians “not satisfied” with the quality of education.  It also called for a stronger teacher certification and evaluation system and a provincial audit of the efficiency of school boards.

Math Matters Protests

Hundreds of Alberta parents rallied in July 2015 to protest a new Math curriculum, dubbed “Discovery Math” by a growing number of parents, math professors, and local business advocates. Spearheaded by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies and bearing a Math Petition with 18,074 signatures, the protestors continued to pressure a succession of Education ministers for changes to restore basics-first math instruction. The popular protests came on the heels of a May 2015 C.D. Howe Institute report claiming that Canada’s math teachers need to shift their focus away from discovery-based learning and move back towards traditional methods.

Indigenous Leadership Renewal

A new harvest of Indigenous leaders began to emerge in 2015 aroused by the Stephen Harper Conservative government’s intransigence and emboldened by the public support engendered by the nation-wide TRC hearings.  Two of the better known of the newly empowered generation were National Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde, who succeeded the deposed Shawn Atleo, and the multi-talented Wab Kinew, author, host of CBC’s Canada Reads competition, and Associate Vice-President at the University of Winnipeg.

Memorable Downticks

TDSB Leadership Upheaval

Canada’s largest public school district, Toronto District School Board, endured one of its worst years on record.  When Board Director Donna Quan resigned in mid-November 2015, it brought a tumultuous end to her short tenure, 18 months before the expiration of her contract. Torn by a deep rift between Quan, her staff and the elected Board, the beleaguered Director stepped aside. In doing so, she also bowed to the findings of an earlier TDSB investigation, ordered by Education Minister Liz Sandals, that described in detail the board’s “culture of fear” and dysfunctional leadership.

School Closure Express Train

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), Education Minister Serge Rousselle  and his Department imposed a top-down, speeded-up “school sustainability process” upon supporters of a dozen threatened rural schools. Described by critics as a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their communities, it sparked the formation in April 2015 of the first Rural Schools Coalition in the province.

Protracted Ontario Teachers’ Strikes

TeachersProtestON15A year of teacher strike disputes continued in Ontario, with a few interruptions, until November 2015.  Public elementary school teachers (EFTO) reached a tentative salary deal in early November, ending a lengthy period of work-to-rule. Support staff represented by a separate union (CUPE) also struck a deal then, ending negotiations that lasted over a year. One major difference between the November deals reached with ETFO and CUPE and the agreements with other unions is that these did not come with payments from the government to cover the unions’ negotiating expenses. A return to normalcy was promised with the issuing of full December 2015 student report cards.

Missing B.C. Student Records

British Columbia’s Minister of Technology Amrik Virk shocked British Columbians in late September 2015 when he publicly disclosed the loss of an unencrypted backup hard drive containing about 3.4 million student records.  The missing hard drive contained student data from 1986 to 2009, including information on children in care with serious health and behaviour issues. While the minister called the breach “low risk,” the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, claimed it raised “very serious privacy issues,” and launched an investigation.

Threat to Local Education Democracy

Elected school boards continued to flounder across Canada in 2015 because they are being eclipsed by expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Since the stiff warning issued in a 2013 Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team, elected trustees have been unable to recover their “voice of the people” role and face probable extinction.  In the fall of 2015, Quebec and P.E.I. joined New Brunswick in ending elected boards.  Disbanding school trustees without a viable replacement is not what’s best for students, parents, or local schools.

So much for the most visible trends and newsworthy events:  Where is Canadian K-12 education drifting? Will the next round of OECD Education international tests show any real change in student performance levels?   Is the era of centralized administration and standardization showing signs of fracturing in our provincial school systems? Has the education sector borne the full brunt of government austerity or is more to come? Will elected school boards survive as presently constituted across Canada? 

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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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