Over the past couple of weeks, the removal of the elected members of the Halifax regional school board has been characterized by some as undemocratic. That argument has been supported by comparing the change to the introduction of the War Measures Act in Quebec in the 1970s and by characterizing the gentleman appointed to replace the former elected members as a policeman.
Now, most of us have high regard for police officers and most of us would, I believe, still endorse the efforts of the federal government to bring home-grown terrorism under control in Quebec. But that is not the point. These comparisons were meant to demonstrate that the change at the Halifax regional school board was a knee-jerk overreaction to the vagaries of the normal cut and thrust of a fully functioning democratic debate. That somehow this change has left the people of Halifax without a voice. Let’s consider those assertions for a few minutes.
Was the removal of the elected Halifax board by the elected government of Nova Scotia undemocratic? Of course not.
Education is a provincial responsibility. Karen Casey is a minister of the Crown, holding her authority as a member of a duly elected government that has the confidence of a House of Assembly which was selected by the people of Nova Scotia. She acted in accordance with the rules and under the authority of legislation approved by that same House.
Section 68 of the Education Act clearly states that where, “in the opinion of the Minister” a school board has “failed to comply with a request of the Minister to take corrective action,” the Minister “may appoint a person who shall carry out” the responsibilities and exercise the authority of the school board. Former education minister Jamie Muir gave clear and unequivocal direction to the elected members of the Halifax regional school board to get their shenanigans under control. They failed to do so, even knowing, as they must have, what the consequences of that failure would be.
Has this action left parents and the community without a voice? Of course not.
The phone is still answered at every school in the board if a parent has a concern. Queries directed at the board offices are responded to as they always have been. The school board itself still meets and parents and community members still have an opportunity to appear in a public forum and have their concerns raised and responded to. School advisory councils are still in session and, if operating appropriately, are having direct parental and community input into the most important aspect of this system – the education of our kids.
Now comes the “majority” of the former board, launching a lawsuit to get their authority back – not their jobs, their authority. Remember, they have not been fired. The minister has simply, as the provincial legislation allowed for, appointed someone else to exercise their authority because they were not doing so. Arguing that this is a question of democratic principle, the group asserts that an unelected judge is the best avenue to achieve that principle.
This is not true. Under Section 48 of the Education Act, the minister may consent to a special election for a school board. Has anyone asked?
Even better, under Section 51 of the Education Act, where a board member resigns, that vacancy SHALL be filled by special election. A special election has to be called within four weeks of that same resignation and the election itself must happen within 11 weeks of the day on which the election is called. So, at the most, 15 weeks from the day a current member resigns, the government must allow the people in that district to elect a new member. That certainly sounds like a much swifter and more democratic solution than a long process through the courts.
I am willing to accept that the disgruntled board members truly believe they were doing a good job representing the people of their districts and meeting the educational needs of our kids. I am also equally willing to accept that, in the opinion of the minister, they were not doing so. My assertion is that if the question is really about democracy and not about $8,200 or the understandably hard feelings of being so publicly held to account, then there is only one valid option. The board members must resign and test their convictions not in front of an unelected judge, but in true democratic fashion at the ballot box.
Charles Cirtwill is acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank based in Halifax.