Paul W. Bennett
School boards were established for a purpose. Since the advent of the public school system, school boards 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 either in fragile condition or threatened with extinction. A recent feature article in The Globe and Mail, written by Kate Hammer (July 17, 2010), posed the whole question bluntly: “should governments close our school boards?” ( http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/should-governments-close-our-school-boards/article1643119/) Most Canadians probably favour the idea, and especially those with no children in the system. Few bother to examine the real impact of such a move on public accountability in education.
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’ famous 1885 painting, “Meeting of 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 in the locus of decision-making power away from local communities. Today the bureaucratic education state is omnipresent. When parent 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 system based upon School Boards and elected bodies of Trustees.
Elected Trustees are now in a fight for political survival. With declining enrolments and aging populations, most provinces are looking for ways to reduce education expenditures. Governments have been slowly chipping away at school board authority, taking advantage of weakly-led boards known for political posturing and nonsensical debates. Salaries and office budgets are now subject to more controls and provincial grants come with more strings attached.
School boards get little respect in Nova Scotia. In December 2006, Education Minister 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 the same 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 School Board trustees are basically limited to advocacy and “rubber-stamping” monthly staff reports. A new Ontario education law blocks trustees from criticizing their board’s decisions. In Ontario’s Bluewater Board, the elected trustees have proven so ineffective that a public advocacy group, Mended, has all but replaced them as the credible voice of the people.
Why not replace 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 its 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 farse that is sold to the public as local governance.”
The central questions cannot be skirted any longer: Who speaks for the public in education? With School Boards housed in central offices far removed from most school communities, how can we preserve the vital principle of democratic control over decision-making? Are School Governing Councils the ultimate answer? If so, who provides the coordination across school regions? Most importantly, without School Boards, where’s the public accountability in education?