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Posts Tagged ‘District Education Councils (DECs)’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Governance Philosophy and Practice:

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

  • Size and Scale Problem – Too Big to Be Responsive

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

  • Resistance to School-Level Democratic Accountability

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

  • Introduction of Strict Board Member Discipline Codes

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

  • Public Disengagement and Spread of Acclamation Disease

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

  • Inability to Address Declining Student Performance

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

  • Failure to Exercise Effective Oversight over Senior Administration

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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