In Brief: In asking for some big new ideas, the Premier of Nova Scotia laid down a challenge to a gathering of education stakeholders – incremental changes are not enough. In his fortnightly column AIMS acting president Charles Cirtwill took up that challenge in spades. He proposes not only doing away with school boards but combining that move with a shift to true site based management at the school level. Making schools responsible for student performance and making the department responsible for supporting, not running, schools.

by Charles Cirtwill 

The Premier’s Symposium on Student Achievement may well have been cut short by one storm only to brew up another. Post-tropical storm Noel trapped one guest speaker in Boston, shortened the time allotted for discussion groups and eliminated the time to report even the abbreviated results of the discussion groups to the larger audience. That’s too bad. I really would have liked to hear a discussion on one of the questions posed to the break out sessions.


The question was: “What should the roles of the School Advisory Councils and elected school boards be in contributing to the education system? Should they have the same authority?”


This question is fascinating for a couple of reasons. First, because it means someone somewhere is at least thinking about the question of whether we need school boards. Second, it means that same someone actually has a suggestion about what to replace the boards with so that we maintain the local elected accountability that is the number one deliverable of a school board structure.


That thinking is to be encouraged. SACs, like the School Boards, are intended as elected forums for local input into the operation of our education system.  If one or the other such forum is functioning effectively, it would seem to make the other redundant.


Now, the government has been very clear in their public statements on this point: they have no current plans to eliminate school boards. But, given that the Minister and the courts have just conclusively demonstrated that the elected representatives on the boards ultimately hold no real power at all and literally serve at the pleasure of the Minister, what, I ask, is the point of elections? Why not return to the model of appointed board members or to no boards at all?


Interestingly enough I am no longer so alone in asking such questions. Cheryl Hodder, who chairs an education committee for the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, raised a round of applause at the Premier’s weekend soiree for her endorsement of the Minister’s decision to fire the Halifax Board. When she took that endorsement the next logical step and asked rhetorically why we even needed elected boards and suggested eliminating the stipend so that the positions would become truly voluntary, let’s just say the reaction was less spontaneous.


But Ms. Hodder and the anonymous drafter of the breakout question are right. We do not need elected school boards, at least so long as we have effective and elected SACs.


Let’s consider some basic math for a moment. We have about 138,000 kids enrolled in around 250 schools in the current school year. Our total education budget cracked a billion dollars a few years ago. We have around 935,000 people packed spaciously into about 55,000 square kilometres. We have eight school boards.


In Edmonton, they have two boards. Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic Schools combined serve a total population of just over one million people. They have about 280 schools and about 115,000 students. They spent about $962 million last year (all figures based on data reported on their official websites and rounded for ease of presentation). Everything about the same as all of Nova Scotia, we just have four times as many boards.


Why the difference? Well, there is geography. The Edmonton Census Metropolitan Area (the area included by Statscan in figuring out how big Edmonton really is) is around 9500 square kilometres or about 1/5 the size of Nova Scotia. On that measure, and that measure alone, we actually don’t do too badly in the comparison of number of boards.


But, then again, there is New Zealand. It is about 268,000 square kilometres and it has no school boards. That is right, none. Every school has a Board of Trustees generally made up of the principal, a staff representative, three to seven parent representatives and representatives of other interested groups as appropriate (including a student representative in schools with grades 9-13). All of the trustees are elected.


In other words, the New Zealanders asked and answered the question raised above – and they went with effective and elected local representation at the school level.


Yes, it would be a fundamental change in our education system to give our SACs more power. Yes, it would mean changing the support and training of SAC members and yes it would mean changing the job descriptions and responsibilities of our departmental staff. But even the Premier admitted on the weekend that incremental changes are no longer enough. New Zealand has proven these last 20 years that local school councils can help run schools, and Edmonton has proven these past 30 years that local school control works. Maybe it is time to consider merging the two ideas and, to coin a phrase, SAC our school boards.


Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.