School Boards in Crisis: Why are Elected Regional Boards Self-Destructing?

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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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