Schools are being closed and teachers laid off, and a recent report on public education is calling for cuts to the number of teaching assistants in the province.

That’s left some asking if it’s time to take a long look at school boards themselves.

Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies has written on the subject and argues that Nova Scotia’s eight-board system is unnecessary or at least in need of a serious trimming.

“Why are we not having a serious conversation about eliminating the school boards?” he asks. “The boards spent $35.5 million in 2006-07 on ‘regional board management’ — that’s overhead, not busing or cleaning or teaching, just ‘managing.’ “

In an interview, Cirtwill said on the heels of the results of the provincewide review, the climate might be right for Education Minister Ramona Jennex to start the conversation.

“If you start talking about eliminating the school boards, then the question you have to ask is what do you replace it with?” he said Wednesday.

“And then you get to a real conversation about whether there’s value in changing the way we deliver education.”

Cirtwill said the province moved in the direction of letting schools manage themselves when it established school advisory councils several years ago.

But he said the councils weren’t given any power.

“So it’s a real simple switch. If you want to make them meaningful, you give them the power to hire and fire principals. There you go. Now they have juice,” he said.

Ben Levin, the education expert who wrote the recent report on improving the education system, doesn’t support eliminating school boards.

In his report summary, he listed the idea as a non-priority “that should NOT be the focus of system-wide change in Nova Scotia in the near future because evidence is that even though they may be appealing to some people, these efforts do not produce benefits that are commensurate to the effort expended.”

The minister said she plans to listen to Levin.

“We really need to be focusing on other areas,” she said. “Taking his words and working cautiously through these areas, I am going to be taking his advice at this time.”

Vic Fleury, president of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, defends the retention of school boards as a way to keep school management regional.

“Obviously I feel very strongly that boards offer a form of local governance,” he said Wednesday. “Parents and other community groups within a school district have an opportunity to have their views known.”

Fleury said one just needs to look to New Brunswick, where boards were eliminated in 1996 and replaced with district councils, to see potential problems.

“I’ve got colleagues in New Brunswick telling me that the elimination of school boards has removed the opportunity for parents and other groups to have direct input into local school decisions. They feel removed and alienated.”

It has also been suggested that Fleury’s own organization, a voice for Nova Scotia school boards, may no longer be needed. Along with the organization’s $650,000-a-year budget, school boards pay a fee to be members.

Howard Windsor, who took over the fractured Halifax regional school board after members were fired, spiked the board’s membership in the association in 2008. The board has since rejoined and paid a $100,000 membership fee.

Peggy Chishom of Wellington, who has three kids in the school system, wondered why taxpayer dollars are going to such a group.

She said she’s particularly irked to see a notice about the group’s three-day annual meeting at the Digby Pines this month, including golf and a banquet, when there is talk of school closures and cutbacks in teaching assistants.

“In this age of being able to communicate so efficiently, I’m sure there’s no need for (the group),” said Chisholm, part of a group called Students First Nova Scotia.