by Paul W. Bennett
The school board system of governance is threatened with extinction. Without it, where’s the public accountability in education?

School boards were established for a purpose. Since the advent of the public school system, they have existed to provide a measure of local control over our tax-supported schools. Today the school board system of governance founded upon elected school trustees is at best, in fragile condition, and at worst, threatened with extinction. Without school boards, one might ask: where’s the public accountability in education?

A recent feature article by Kate Hammer in the Globe and Mail, posed the whole question bluntly: “Should governments close our school boards?” Most Canadians probably favour the idea, especially those with no children in the system. Few bother to examine the real impact of such a move on accountability for student learning and decision-making at the local level.

Cutting the size of government is popular these days. School board reduction or total elimination is on the public agenda as citizens see it as an obvious cost-saving measure. Regional or district school boards have become remote to most citizens and taxpayers. In the 1990s, Ontario school boards lost their budgetary authority and elected trustees were rendered toothless. New Brunswick abolished school boards entirely, only to backtrack by establishing district education councils populated by well-meaning volunteers.

Local education democracy has faded over time. Robert Harris’s famous 1885 painting, “A Meeting of the School Trustees,” harkens back to a period when trustees were at the very centre of the whole enterprise. School consolidation and county school boards produced a dramatic shift away from local communities in the locus of decision-making power.

The gutting of Ontario school boards began with Bill 160 (1997), the Mike Harris government’s Education Quality Improvement Act. Much of the fierce debate over Bill 160 focused on the battle for control over collective bargaining, as well as on classroom conditions, specifically teacher prep time and class size. However well intentioned, the act significantly weakened local control over education. Control was shifted dramatically from school boards and teachers to the Ontario provincial government.

Scrapping the old educational funding model significantly weakened school boards. Formerly, the Ontario government funded a portion of education and permitted boards to supplement the revenues (by taxing local commercial, industrial, and residential property). Trustees actually set the local tax rate and attempted to respond to local educational needs. It may have been more expensive, but decisions were definitely made closer to the schools.

In its place, the Harris government introduced a system in which all funding available to a school board was determined by the province and every cent raised for educational purposes was decided by the province. Elected trustees found themselves stripped of local taxing powers and the position reduced, through governance changes, to an “advisory” role in the education bureaucracy.

School governing councils were to have been the salvation for parents seeking a meaningful role in local education decision-making. Although Bill 160 introduced school councils, they struggled, right from the beginning. School principals, for the most part, viewed them with great suspicion and resisted becoming what was termed “parents’ pets.” The Ontario Parent Council, led by Bill Robson and other fine individuals, did their best to breathe life into school-based democracy.

In a system dominated by centralized decision-making, school councils continued to struggle for legitimacy. The real winners under the new governance model were the educrats. School trustees limped on, without taxing powers and engaged in a territorial struggle with the new kids on the educational block (parent councils).

Ten years later, the Ontario government still maintains a website urging parents to embrace their designated “advocacy” role in the system. You can lead parents to the water, but it’s hard to compel them to drink, especially if they sense that real power to influence policy-making resides elsewhere.

Elected trustees are now in a fight for political survival, and in Nova Scotia they get little respect. In December 2006, Minister of Education Karen Casey “fired” the entire 13-member Halifax Regional School Board for its petty squabbling ways and then replaced the board with a retired civil servant, Howard Windsor, acting as a “one-man” school board. The Strait Regional School Board in eastern Nova Scotia suffered a similar fate. When the two Nova Scotia boards were restored in October 2008, the superintendents exercised greater control and elected trustees operated under guidelines befitting system “cheerleaders.”

Stripped of tax-raising powers, today’s elected trustees are basically limited to advocacy and “rubber-stamping” monthly staff reports. They are also blocked from criticizing their boards’ decisions, thanks to a new Ontario education law. In Ontario’s Bluewater Board, the elected trustees proved so ineffective that from 2008 until 2010 a public advocacy group, MendEd, all but replaced them as the credible voice of the people.

Why not replace elected trustees with district or school parent councils? Prominent conservative think tanks such as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) now favour replacing school boards with school advisory councils (SACs) vested with expanded powers. AIMS president Charles Cirtwill contends that New Zealand and the Edmonton Public School Board prove that it’s time to “SAC” our school boards.

New Brunswick’s District Education Council (DEC) system, on the other hand, has been plagued with problems. In July 2009, three members of NB’s District 2 District Education Council (Mary Laltoo, David Matthews, and Pat Crawford) resigned, decrying the DEC governance model as a sham with few real decision-making powers. In a joint declaration, the three dissenters claimed that they refused to remain as “part of a farce that is sold to the public as local governance.”

Today the bureaucratic education state is omnipresent. When parents with concerns are rebuffed by local principals, they have virtually nowhere to turn. Local democratic control has eroded to the point where many now call for the complete abolition of the current school trustee system. We have been drifting in the wrong direction. It’s time to rejuvenate local education democracy and to rethink our malign neglect of school board governance.

Dr. Paul W. Bennett is Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax. He was Founding Chair of the Coalition for Education Reform (1993-95) and a Public School Trustee with the Ontario York Region School Board from 1988 to 1997.