Monday, 18 March 2019
Yet another province is conducting a review on the future of elected school boards. Manitoba has just hired the same external consultant who recently recommended that Nova Scotia do away with elected boards – which it did. If you were thinking that it couldn’t happen in your province, think again. Unlike the relationship between provincial governments and locally elected city governments, the connection with school boards is often troubled or tenuous at best. Questioning the value of school boards is not new but the past decade has seen a greater erosion to the number and autonomy of boards than ever before.
As the new saying goes, it is time to be “woke”! But just sending letters to government isn’t going to cut it. Boards have to make a full court press to the people in their local communities - those who aren’t directly connected to schools and don’t normally vote for trustees - to be concerned about the erosion of local democracy. They have to appeal to something that these non-education system voters might directly care about. Would they care if the province was going to take away their right to vote in their municipal elections for mayors and councillors? Would they care if decisions about their local streets and businesses were going to be totally centralized in the capital and not locally? Would they care that their real estate values are tied to the quality of their local schools and they should have a direct say in that? Do they care that the youth in their towns will be subjected to province-wide cookie cutter policies that don’t differentiate between one community and the next? As employers, might they care about attracting local graduates to stay and work in their communities?
If boards can’t get their local constituents to impress upon their MLAs that local voice matters - both for Councils and school boards- then the government will happily accept the recommendations of an external consultant and chalk it up to cost savings, efficiency and standardization. I fear that some boards live and operate in an education bubble, talking mostly to themselves, parents and education partner groups - preaching to the choir.
Here is just a quick list of some things boards might consider to start building the same kind of respect and support enjoyed by city councils.
- appoint a full-time committee to explore, advance and monitor community engagement (the whole community!)
- build community engagement into your strategic plan and reporting structures
- hire a staff person to promote and communicate public outreach – this is much more than a website (communications is a specialty)
- rebuild the idea of schools being community hubs rather than shutting them down at 4:00 and weekends or charging the local Brownie group to use the gym
- appoint a member of the local city council to be a non-voting member of the board
- appoint a trustee to attend every city council meeting, make presentations, build partnerships
- build real collaboration and shared services with the city and your local MLAs
- get your provincial trustee association to hire a full-time legislative staffer who will live in the halls of the legislature, connect with MLAs and constituency offices, and build connections with government
- get your provincial association to do real research on the benefits of boards, not just to learning outcomes but community outcomes, and the false narrative of amalgamation cost saving
- connect directly with business leaders, get them to present at board meeting and schools, build the case for the connection between schools and community success
- attend, join and invite other community groups such as Rotary, Kinsmen, business associations etc.
- connect with the real estate board about the quality of local schools to potential buyers
- figure out which groups and businesses have the most influence with government and lobby them (yes I said lobby)
These are just a few ideas and there are probably a hundred other things you could and should be doing. Boards cannot take for granted that everyone gets what you already get – that local schools and local school governance makes a difference, not just for students but for the well being of the whole community.
Make this a priority now.
Saturday, 2 February 2019
The Manitoba government recently raised the possibility of eliminating or amalgamating locally elected school boards - not the first Canadian province to have threatened or done so. This suggests a lack of respect for and understanding of the important role that school boards play in democracy and student achievement.
Canadians have been selecting their fellow citizens to govern their local schools before the federal and provincial governments even came into existence. School trustees know a thing or two about governance and democracy! The argument that low voter turnout in school board elections is proof of their lack of importance to constituents is wrongheaded. It is true that turnout for school board elections are low in some cities (which is also the case in many municipal elections), but in other areas, local citizens exercise their franchise quite passionately, particularly when funding decisions made by provincial governments threaten schools and program closures. School boards, along with their municipal government counterparts, are closer to their constituencies than provincial and federal levels of government. School trustees act as the guardians of one of our most important public goods - and surveys have repeatedly shown that Canadians believe their educational interests are best served by local representatives. There is no more valid and genuine form of democracy than locally elected school boards, precisely because school trustees are not professional politicians. School boards put the public – the local public - in public education!
These attacks on local governance also fail to recognize that in addition to their democratic value school boards can and do positively impact student achievement. This is not just a fuzzy sentiment or trustee self belief. It is backed by research conducted throughout North America showing that school boards that exhibit certain governance skills have a positive impact on outcomes in the classroom – regardless of the socio-economic demographics of their communities. In the most recent OECD review of 72 countries, Canadian students ranked among the best in the world. Clearly, the current form of local governance is working. What problem needs to be fixed?
Research and experience has also shown that the elimination or major amalgamation of school boards does not produce real savings or reduce bureaucracy. Regionalized/centralized structures don’t eliminate the number of decisions that have to be made in school districts. They just result in broad policies that attempt to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to the unique needs of local communities. When parents are forced to bring their local concerns to a centralized provincial body the path to resolution is complex and their voices are diminished.
The model of local governance through publicly elected school boards is not redundant, flawed or broken. Manitobans, and all Canadians, must raise their voices to protect this critically important level of democracy.
Dr. Stephen Hansen