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Posts Tagged ‘District Education Councils (DECs)’

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Asking “Who is, in fact, in charge here?” is a fair question, but it is now a “no-no” judging from a recent regular public meeting of an elected Ontario school board.  You may find yourself cut-off in mid-sentence, told to “stay positive,” then sanctioned by a Board Chair acting on behalf of elected trustees. That is exactly what happened on April 26, 2022 to Zorra Mayor Marcus Ryan when he attempted to address the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) raising the serious matter of glaring irregularities in recent governance practices.

The TVDSB’s handling of two recent issues – the disbanding of a Rural Education Task Force and the Director of Education overruling elected trustees on the mandating of masks – brought matters to a head.  Speaking up as a local Mayor and concerned citizen, Ryan got more specific: “Who makes the decisions about how one billion dollars of our tax money is spent on our children’s education in our communities? The board passes resolutions, but then the senior administration seems to do whatever they want.”

TVDSB Board Chair Lori-Ann Pizzolato interrupted Ryan to request he keep his remarks positive, then Trustee Corrine Rahman raised a point of order warning Ryan to be respectful of staff and trustees and consider the stress everyone has been under over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was abundantly clear, watching the TVDSB meeting on video, that Mayor Ryan was being silenced for having the temerity to “criticize the board” in public. Acting upon the advice of an in-house “parliamentary advisor,” the elected trustees no longer feel bound to listen to criticism, let alone respond to delegations challenging their decisions.

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Why do elected regional school boards exist if not to listen to and act on behalf of parents, taxpayers and local communities?  That is a pretty fundamental question worth pondering in the months leading up to the Ontario school board elections in October 2022.  What’s gone terribly wrong with elected regional boards? Whose interests do they represent?  Are any of the trustee candidates committed to re-engineering the system? If not, what should replace our top-down, senior administration dominated and unaccountable school boards?

Elected school boards always seem to be in crisis or threatened with extinction somewhere in Canada.  Close observers of Ontario education would be well aware of the troubled boards with a recent history of governance problems, including Limestone District School Board, Rainbow District School Board, York Region District School Board, and, most recently, Waterloo District School Board. Currently, Greater Victoria District School Board (BC District 61) is in turmoil and New Brunswick’s week sister imitation of regional boards, known as District Education Councils (DECs) are on notice.

Over the past two decades, New Brunswick’s hollowed-out version of elected regional boards has been in a gradual cycle of decline. Acclamation disease, plummeting voter participation, role confusion, and aversion to public engagement have all conspired to render the DECs largely irrelevant to most New Brunswickers. The DECs are on life support and that province’s activist Education Minister Dominic Cardy is looking seriously at decentralizing education governance.

Followers of Educhatter Blog will be familiar with my proposals to re-engineer education governance. My 2020 book, The State of the System, provides a detailed prescription, but it’s rather lengthy and a hard slog to get through.  So here is my “Coles Notes” version:

Adopt a “Community-School Governance Model”

Copying and pasting in an education model from elsewhere in Canada simply won’t work because each province is unique in its own way.  Most provinces still have conventional elected regional boards so New Brunswick is something of an anomaly.  Stepping back and taking stock of the differing local contexts, I still believe Ministers and their departments would be best advised to design and build what I term a “Community-School Governance Model” combining school-based governance/management with, in a second stage, completely re-engineered regional education development councils.

School-based management supported by school governing councils holds out exciting possibilities for creating a new education governance culture and revitalizing local school-level democracy. In designing the framework, the province would be well-advised to look first to the Edmonton Public Schools model of school-based management (SBM) and budget development process.  It is the best and most proven strategy for transitioning to a more decentralized form of educational decision-making.

The Edmonton model of SBM, adopted in 1976, and developed by Superintendent Dr. Michael Strembitsky in the 1980s, has stood the test of time. Alberta Education published a School-Based Decision-Making Guide in 1997 and opened the door to other boards adopting school-based budgeting. In 2003, when the World Bank started championing SBM in developed countries across the globe, a feature story in Time Magazine described Edmonton’s public schools as “the most imitated public school system in North America.”

Superintendent Darrel Robertson, in an August 2016 Edmonton Journal news story, reported that school-based decision-making was still going strong in the district. It remained the core philosophy because it successfully “empowers and engages staff, students and parents.”

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Governance Lessons – from New Zealand

New Zealand’s transformation to a decentralized governance under David Lange’s 1984-89 Labour government provides many valuable lessons for policy-makers. Faced with a tug-of-war with ten different education boards, Lange sought to reinvent government with his 1988 Tomorrow’s Schools initiative. It provided a blueprint for transformative education reform based upon the model of self-governing schools. Each school’s parents were authorized to elect their own board of trustees, the new legal entity entrusted with the educational and financial well-being of the school.

The N.Z. structural reform embraced school choice for parents and generated plenty of upheaval in its first decade before it solidified and gained acceptance. Twenty-five years after its inception, Cathy Wylie, lead researcher at NZCER, judged it a success overall, urging the NZ government to look at a system refresh rather than a return to “archaic” regional boards in any shape or form.

Creating a New Education Leadership Culture

Educational restructuring would not be deemed a success unless and until the top-down school system was turned right side up, building from the school level up.  School community-based decision-making will not happen on its own. It does require structural change to foster a new culture of more flexible, responsive educational leadership.  Simply put, we need to reprogram district administration to ensure that the system exists to serve the needs of children, teachers, parents, and local communities.

Regional school boards, as presently constituted, are far too bureaucratic, too big and unresponsive to be effective. Those who continue to argue for their retention on the grounds that they represent the people are, in the words of veteran Ontario educator Peter Hennessy, “missing the point” that “elective parent councils” have been established precisely because “the boards were and are out of touch with the grassroots.”

A Proposed Cure for the Local Democratic Deficit  

With school boards staggering from crisis-to-crisis, now is the time to transform the education governance system to cure the now-visible deficit in public accountability and local democratic engagement. The best course of action would be to announce a gradual, planned transition, replacing the existing regional education bodies with autonomous, elected, self-governing school councils. That sets a clear direction. It vests far more authority where it belongs, in school-level councils, and paves the way for the construction of a new community-based model of education.

Re-engineering local education governance will take time to get it right, so plan on implementing the change over 3 to 5 years. Invest heavily in public engagement and democratic education programming to attract and prepare a new cohort of school-level council members. Phase-out the existing regional boards and DECs and prepare for a roll-over in decision-making responsibility in two-to-three years’ time. While the school governing councils are under construction, plan for the re-establishment of regional coordination and planning bodies with membership drawn from the elected school governing councils.

Community-School Based Governance operates better when it is properly integrated into a broader regional and provincial governance system. Regional coordination is essential and that could come from newly-constituted regional coordinating bodies (i.e., District Education Development Councils).  Unlike the current unaccountable boards, they would have the political legitimacy that comes from being first elected at the school-level and be clearly accountable to the school communities.

What can be done to restore local democratic accountability in Canadian K-12 provincial education systems? Can elected regional bodies be saved or is it better to start again, rebuilding from the schools up?  Which provincial government will be first to embrace more decentralized school-level education decision-making?  What democratic accountability benchmarks do we need to assess the effectiveness of such governance reforms?

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Regional school boards are gradually losing their democratic legitimacy and always seem to be threatened with extinction in one province or another across Canada. All seven of Nova Scotia’s elected English boards were sacked in favour of Regional Centres of Education (RCEs) in early 2018, and Manitoba school boards were recently spared the axe and linger on now claiming to represent the “public voice” in K-12 education. With school governance reform in the air in New Brunswick, that province’s hollowed-out substitute for elected boards, District Education Councils (DECs), are next in line for review.

Deeply troubled by New Brunswick’s current review of education governance options, Canadian School Boards Association (CSBA) president Laurie French produced another ‘Hail-Mary’ opinion column. It would be tragic, she claimed on January 24, if New Brunswick’s District Education Councils (DECs) were swept away in the coming reform.  With school boards under increasing public scrutiny from province-to-province, salvaging that province’s weak sister version of elected school boards has taken on new urgency.

What was remarkable about the CSBA appeal is that it simply repeats the usual feel-good bromides that seek to create the illusion of solving the problem. Salvaging the DECs in their current form would only maintain the façade of ‘local decision-making’ because the regional bodies have simply lost all claim to democratic legitimacy.  Acclamation disease is rampant and voter participation in free-fall, and it is looking, more and more, like it’s time to completely re-invent governance to restore meaningful public voice in that K-12 education system.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the DEC ship will not likely prevent it from capsizing in the coming year. Tuned-out citizens and turned-off parents sent a powerful message in the May 2021 local elections. Out of 68 DEC seats, only 18 (or 26.4 per cent) were contested, leaving the rest ether filled by acclamation or vacant because no candidates surfaced before election day. In Anglophone district council elections, the average participation rate plummeted to 15.6 percent, down from 19.2 per cent in 2016. Only 22,035 electors out of 140,633 cast votes, half the number who voted five years ago.

A post-election survey of electors, conducted by Elections NB and based upon 400 respondents, revealed that some 40 per cent did not vote for certain contests, mostly school district and health authority positions, because they were “not interested.”  Delving more deeply into their reasons, the most common explanation was “I did not know enough about who was running.”  One general comment jumped out: “We didn’t know who they were. And I talked to a lot of people who voted that felt the same way.”

School district governance is in a truly sorry state when few want to run for DEC seats and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Chief electoral officer for Elections NB Kim Poffenroth was absolutely right. “Persuading people to run,” she told CBC News, “in not part of our mandate.” Indeed, and the problem runs far too deep to be amenable to such unconvincing public entreaties.

Claiming that DECs are comparable to elected school boards with trustees representing education districts is almost farcical, given the constraints and limits placed on the authority and responsibilities of local councillors. Most DEC members are completely under the thumb of district administration and that’s plainly obvious watching DEC meetings online.

The DEC coordinating group of chairs, guided by DEC manager Stacey Brown, enjoy privileged access to the Minister of Education, and function more like a private social club than a corporate board. Without any term limits, DEC ‘boardies’ such as Harry Doyle (2008 – Present) and Robert Fowler (2004-2021) come to occupy sinecures. When Fowler stepped down after 16 years, he was succeeded by veteran Joe Petersen (2008-Present) with 35 years of service, including time on his local school support committees.

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Twenty-seven years ago, local education democracy was far healthier under the former elected school boards. In the last school board elections (1995), 196 school trustees were elected or acclaimed for 245 elected positions, and 49 had to be appointed. Instead of acting on the key recommendation of the 1992 Commission on Excellence in Education to strengthen school board accountability, then Education Minister Paul Duffie announced, without consultation or warning, that all school boards would be eliminated and elected trustees removed from office, effective March 1,1996.

Since being established in 2001, DECs have focused almost exclusively on system maintenance and utterly failed to connect with the voting public or with the vast majority of local parents. From 2008 onward, the number of seats has been slashed, electoral districts enlarged, and voter participation has dropped with each election. It’s a classic case of what political scientists term the “turned-off electorate” and it breeds growing detachment from elected school district representatives, then a loss of public trust.

Abolishing school district governance without replacing it with a better, more democratic system would be a mistake. That’s what happened four years ago in Nova Scotia when that province’s seven elected Anglophone school boards were dissolved and left to devolve into more highly centralized regional centres for education.

Wiping out elected regional representation is not a solution when it means, in effect, handing over total responsibility to an empowered group of regional potentates with title to match, transforming superintendents into ‘regional directors of education.’ Appointing fifteen regional educational representatives to a Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE) provided political cover. The vast majority of Nova Scotia parents have no idea that PACE even exists and, in most cases, have nowhere to turn when policy concerns surface or local matters cannot be resolved by school administrators.

The current crisis at the Greater Victoria School District (SD 61) Board suggests that education governance in British Columbia is floundering. Allowing a regional school board to suspend two publicly-elected school trustees Diane McNally and Rob Paynter whose only crime was asking tough questions is a sign of deeper problems with respect to providing proper public accountability to parents and local taxpayers. It even sparked a vote of non-confidence from the local branch of the BC teachers’ union. The relative silence emanating from the British Columbia School Trustees Association (BCSTA) speaks volumes. Perhaps elected boards are only there to shield district administration and maintain a façade of local democratic representation.

New Brunswick is a good place to start the process of local democratic renewal. That province needs is a complete break with current form of education governance and it will not come from inside the system, but from best, evidence-based practice in governance outside the provincial sector. That sounds like what Education Minister Dominic Cardy has in mind in the months ahead.

Saving the 68 seats on DECs will only sustain the status quo and do little, by itself, to invigorate local school-level democratic decision-making. The Minister’s got it right in a recent Times & Transcript interview: “We actually need more people doing more work who are democratically elected and accountable across the province.”

That’s music to my ears and my 2020 book, The State of the System, makes the case for building back democracy from the schools up over a period of 3 or 4 years. Starting with the creation of school governing councils entrusted with wider responsibilities for school-level management, a more decentralized model would ensure that far more decisions are made where it really counts in the schools by educators working in genuine partnership with parents and community members, including representatives of local businesses and social service agencies.

The DECs as presently constituted are dying of natural causes. One trenchant critic Donald Gallant nailed it in a recent rather terse CBC News story comment: “Who would ever want to sit on those silly committees where nobody listens to anything you say.” That’s the brutally honest truth, but it does not mean that we should turn the entire system over to regional ‘educrats’ and school consolidators in charge of regional facilities planning.

There has got to be a better way forward to invigorate democratic engagement in local decision-making.  It starts by investing time and resources into developing school-level decision-making capacity, attracting a whole new generation of actively engaged parents and educators, introducing term of service limits, and taking the time to build school-based community councils in support of thriving, sustainable communities.

Why are elected school boards constantly trying to stave off the provincial executioner?  What’s wrong with the existing regional school board model?  Are elected boards salvageable or are we better to phase them out and start again?  In doing so, should we start from the schools up?  Will it be possible, this time, to overcome the resistance of the education establishment to  school-level, community-school -based education governance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Governance Philosophy and Practice:

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

  • Size and Scale Problem – Too Big to Be Responsive

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

  • Resistance to School-Level Democratic Accountability

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

  • Introduction of Strict Board Member Discipline Codes

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

  • Public Disengagement and Spread of Acclamation Disease

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

  • Inability to Address Declining Student Performance

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

  • Failure to Exercise Effective Oversight over Senior Administration

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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