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.