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Posts Tagged ‘School Governing Councils’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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