AS A CARPENTER, Howard Gibson knows the importance of a precise cut. He measures carefully, mindful of the effect that first cut will have on his finished product.
As chairman of the school advisory council at New Germany Rural High, he also knows the importance of taking a good measure before taking action.
“I’ve been fighting the battle since 1985 and I’m getting a little old and a little jaded,” Gibson said.
At 55, he doesn’t have any children in the school system anymore, though he has one grandchild attending a school outside Bridgewater and two more to follow.
But just because he doesn’t have kids in school doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about his school.
Gibson went to a large school in Montreal and thinks his three kids — a police officer, a lawyer and a swim coach — got a better education in New Germany than he did growing up in the culturally diverse city because the teachers knew his kids and cared about them.
He has regularly gone to the school board with concerns over the years. In fact, he appeared before the very South Shore regional school board that was fired last November, and he says there are faults with the system.
“My problem with boards is there are too many people with special agendas,” Gibson said.
They have a tough job, because they have to put aside their personal feelings and consider what is best for the school district as a whole, he says.
Gibson isn’t the only one who thinks Nova Scotia’s school board system needs to be reviewed. A former education minister, the current one-person South Shore board, the head of an economic and social policy think-tank, and the mother of a little girl all agree.
“Sometimes I think we should get rid of school boards and let teachers teach and tell parents what’s wrong with their kids,” said Jane Purves, Nova Scotia’s education minister from 1999 to 2002.
At the very least, she thinks school boards need to be reviewed, and civilian oversight is necessary.
“You can’t have them just run by bureaucrats, we need lay people,” Purves said.
She feels bureaucrats are too focused on consistency, whereas civilians know their communities and are more realistic about what’s really going on.
Case in point: Nova Scotia changed the date kids can start school from turning five by the end of September to turning five by the end of December.
“But they’ve not developed any bureaucratic solution to the fact in Grade Primary, at least half the class is going to need an afternoon nap,” Purves said.
Any mother or teacher would see that, she says. She knows of one class in which the teacher has the children put their heads down on their desks after lunch and listen to classical music.
“You won’t see that in any curriculum documents,” but Purves says it’s an example of how lay people deal with the real fallout from bureaucratic decisions.
She says the province should consider smaller or fewer boards and having members at large who don’t represent geographic areas. That would remove personal agendas from the discussion, she says.
Judith Sullivan-Corney, the woman appointed to run the South Shore regional school board pending elections in October, also says the province should look at the existing school board system.
“I do think it’s worth reviewing,” she said.
Since she took on the job, Sullivan-Corney has held a series of meetings with home and school associations and school advisory councils to explain how things will work for now, and a board’s mandate.
Sullivan-Corney says people want to know how to move forward while preventing a repeat of the previous board’s firing. But they’re also asking whether the school board should be left as it is now, whether the structure should be changed or whether boards should be downsized.
“It’s interesting that a lot are starting to raise that question,” she said.
School board meetings on the South Shore now are eerily efficient. Sullivan-Corney picks up the agenda, asks questions of department heads, gets the answer and moves on to the next item. There’s some discussion back and forth but no waiting as members sitting around the table voice their opinions — many of which are expressed repeatedly.
But Sullivan-Corney does not support a one-person or appointed school board.
“We have to be very careful not to abandon elected boards because they are part of our democratic system,” she said. “Local people need to be able to serve on school boards.”
Claire Robinson has a daughter in Grade 2 at Newcombville Elementary in Lunenburg County. She sits on the advisory council and went to one of Sullivan-Corney’s meetings.
“It came as quite a shock that the whole board was dismissed like that,” Robinson said. “I felt it was important to state our case that as parents we are very worried as to what’s going to happen to our schools.”
For her, the issues are curriculum and having enough classroom support for special-needs children. But she also has issues with the structure of school boards in this province.
For starters, she questions staffing levels and she thinks boards are too wrapped up in administration at the expense of concern for classroom education.
“We know what teachers do. You can see them teaching,” Robinson said. “But why do we need so many administrative people within our school boards? I think we need an independent body, and by that I mean a body with no hidden agendas, to go in and see what they’re doing and why they need so many offices.”
Robinson says there’s no question that board meetings are more efficient now because there’s no politicking, but she says there’s no balance for the community.
“It runs quite well, but nobody else is getting a say in things,” she said. “Who’s there to challenge what’s decided?”
She thinks “four or five (members) would be ample,” compared with the normal 12-member board.
The Education Department released a report in July 2008, called Increasing the Effectiveness of School Board Governance in Nova Scotia, after then-minister Karen Casey fired the boards in Halifax and the Strait region.
Legislative changes that came out of that paper included giving boards a broader range of options for disciplining board members, such as revoking privileges, suspension for up to three months, a reprimand or firing.
The minister can replace a board if she deems students’ health, safety or educational welfare is endangered, if a board isn’t using its money responsibly, if it fails to meet department standards or if it doesn’t comply with the minister’s request to take corrective measures.
Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, calls these changes “small tweaks” meant to fix governance without addressing the fundamental problem as he sees it — communities lack true ownership of their schools.
Cirtwill co-authored a report that says governance problems were “being used as a smokescreen for further centralization.”
He calls the department’s approach paternalistic — more concerned with decorum, control and efficiency than with the quality of education offered in classrooms.
In fact, he said in an interview, those changes just served to further disenfranchise parents and teachers, widening the gap between the school and its community and those who make the decisions about how the school is run.
Cirtwill called for an entirely new system in which each school has its own board. Local control, he argues, is the key to better-educated kids because boards would be responsible to their community for the education offered in their schools. Parents would get to choose which school their kids attend, and that would push up the level of education offered in each school.
Sullivan-Corney says it’s a tough job being a school board member.
“You have to implement policy, and implement it in a way people are often not happy with.”
The board’s role is to work with staff to implement the Education Department’s policies and long-term planning for the region, not to get involved in the day-to-day running of schools.
But she concedes it’s almost like serving two masters — board members get phone calls from their neighbours pressuring them not to close their local school, while at the same time they’re mandated to represent the whole district.
Individual concerns can overtake the district’s concerns.
“They always have to keep thinking, ‘What is the top priority for the entire district?’ ” Sullivan-Corney said. “And that priority is to have the best education that we can give to our students.”
But she still thinks elected boards are best able to present the options to the public.
Parents who spoke up at some board meetings on the South Shore in the past year have said boards are like a shield that protects the Education Department, because the boards have to make the nasty decisions about what gets cut.
“You could look at them as a buffer for the Department of Education,” Sullivan-Corney said, but the alternative is that the department unilaterally makes the cuts.
Back in New Germany, Howard Gibson says perhaps the best thing that could come from the South Shore regional school board’s firing is that people will take a careful look at who’s on the ballot next October.
“You need to be aware of who’s running and why they’re running,” he said.
Candidates have to run for the right reason, Gibson says, and that reason should be to have top-quality curriculum in the region’s schools.