It’s been a decade since the first District Education Councils were elected in New Brunswick and it hasn’t always been an easy road for those elected to their local councils.

Councillors, and indeed the province, haven’t always been clear on what the DECs’ roles and responsibilities are, which has often led to a lot of frustration around the table as debates got mired in a discussion of policy and procedures instead of focusing on the reason everyone was there in the first place – creating a better education system for New Brunswick children.

DEC members frequently were left feeling they weren’t able to have an impact on anything at all.

But there does seem to be change, or at least hope of change, in the wind, whether you look to the District 1 DEC putting its collective foot down and refusing to cut a penny more from its budget or District 2’s DEC working hand-in-hand with the province to help resolve the Moncton High School situation.

In both cases the DEC and the province were able to come to a solution together and the DECs felt like their concerns had been heard.

“The new government talked about consulting people and I took them at their word and their word was good,” says District 2 DEC chairman Harry Doyle.

Doyle doesn’t think anything has changed.

“Honestly, I think the DECs really have more ability to make change than they realize,” he says. “I see us as having advocacy and our ability to lobby government for what the DEC sees as the best interest of the kids and community is there, it’s just a question of someone to get up and do it.”

Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says that may very well be the case.

“I’m not certain they were ever as powerless as some people thought they were, nor are they as powerful as they may think they are now,” he says.

Cirtwill says the DEC system hasn’t lived up to its intent.

“The suggestion was you were going to move to a more localized decision-making model,” he says. “But that’s not what you ended up designing…. I think that is a problem with your legislation that hasn’t been fixed, regardless of what has been accomplished.”

The disconnect between the intent and design is something Mary O’Donnell can relate to.

O’Donnell served on the District 2 Education Council first as councillor, then as chairwoman. She did not seek re-election in 2008.

“I guess when you ask people to run for a public office, they like to think they can have some kind of positive impact,” she says. “People don’t go in there to create problems, they go in to create solutions and if they don’t feel they can do that, it becomes an exercise in frustration. Oftentimes that is what it felt like and I would tie that to being the role of what the DEC was supposed to be and the way it is structured are not consistent.”

O’Donnell says the annual capital budget list was one example. The council would put hours and hours of work into creating a prioritized list, then the province would fund projects, but not in the order requested.

“To me, a dialogue was really required,” she says. “You often thought, ‘Are we just wasting our time to put this priority list together?’ But you have to do it.”

Ten years on, some of the DECs at least seem to be finding ways to work around the system.

Doyle says some of the other DEC chairs sometimes express frustration at being told what they can and can’t do, but that hasn’t bothered the District 2 council.

“We haven’t stayed inside the box all the time,” he says.

And as much as he enjoys a good working relationship with the province, Doyle says he’s also had to defend his independence from time to time, when the province started to issues directions instead of requests.

“I had to say, ‘Hang on just a minute, I’m a volunteer. I don’t work for you,'” he says.

Cirtwill points out the District 1 DEC was able to get the province to work with them after the DEC refused to cut its budget by letting the dispute carry on publicly.

“They may not have the control of the money and certainly control of the money gives you much more power, but they are not powerless,” he says of the DECs. “And in the absence of stronger, more logical local governance, they are it.

“To the extent they are willing to take that on, their power is limited only by their willingness to try and use it.”

Education Minister Jody Carr was part of the legislative committee back in 1999 responsible for recommending what became the DEC system.

“Since I’ve become minister I’ve worked to enhance the role of members of the district education council in what I think is their true role and that is to have oversight of policy and vision within the district and also to communicate their local concerns to the province on decisions we have made or may be making in the future,” he says. “It is very much enhancing roles that are there in legislation, but we need to actually encourage the use of that role or the vision of that role to be involved in the decisions that are being made.”

Carr says it isn’t always easy making decisions when many people are involved, but believes it ultimately leads to better decisions.

“With the previous government we saw decisions that were made in isolation. It doesn’t make people feel good and people have less confidence in the decisions that are made,” he says. “We’ve seen some ways not to do it… It really has to be a collective. In order to make the greatest difference, you need to have everyone working together for students in the classroom.”

O’Donnell says the province would be smart to take advantage of what the DECs have to offer.

“The DECs are there as a vehicle for them to access and if they don’t access them, they are losing out,” she says. “Those people are really entrenched in what is going on at the district level.”

Carr says it important to have some mechanism by which local perspectives can be shared with the Department of Education.

The proposal to have school districts cut two per cent of their budgets each year for four years is one example where local input changed the plan.

“Last year we had the two per cent reductions, but each district said finding that two per cent was very difficult and near impossible to repeat, so we are going to look at other areas to find the efficiencies,” he says.

Carr says he is listening and as far as Doyle is concerned, those are not empty words.

He just spent a day in Fredericton as the Department of Education began its foray into a government-wide process of finding better ways to spend money.

“The dialogue seems to be open, to be friendly,” he says.

The day-long session was a precursor to Friday’s launch of a public consultation on education. With a budget that already tops $1 billion, the department needs to find more efficient ways of spending the money it gets.

Taking a look at how to make governance better is one aspect of the consultation.

It’s a discussion O’Donnell says she’d love to be part of.

For one thing, she says it would be helpful if a single governance model could be adopted for all the DECs. It’s not the most headline-grabbing suggestion, perhaps, but it is important.

“The problem with not having a structured governance model is that you spend more time talking about your governance than the things you should be talking about,” he says. “It would have made the meetings a lot more efficient and effective.”

She says scrapping the DECs and starting over isn’t the right way to go.

“I would caution the government not to do like they did years ago and abolish them completely and redesign them because it wasn’t successful in doing it that way,” she says. “We need to identify what works well and what doesn’t work well and what role they can play to make them more efficient, feeding information up to them so they don’t have to do that.”

Cirtwill is a strong supporter of local governance in education, but he says DECs just don’t go far enough.

“I think it is absolutely critical not only to have the moral authority but the spending power at the localest authority you can get, which is at the school,” he says. “We love to pretend in Atlantic Canada that school boards or district education councils are local authorities, but even in Moncton, the DEC is huge. It does not represent local decision-making at the community level.”

Carr says that kind of structure is something the province is willing to look at.

“We are right onto all of that kind of discussion,” he says. “Is there room for more authority at the school level … We know the biggest impact for students happens in the classroom and with our principals at the school.”

Despite the fact there are some severe budgetary challenges looming in education, Carr says it is an exciting time for the department and for DECs.

“There are challenges with the fiscal reality, but there is also an opportunity to find how we can work better together,” he says.