Patti Bacchus: Will B.C.’s school boards survive? Should they?

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      B.C.’s newly appointed Education Minister, Jennifer Whiteside, made her first (virtual) public appearance in her new role last weekend at the B.C. School Trustees Association’s (BCSTA) annual Trustee Academy, which was held online.

      I didn’t get to hear her address to trustees, but she tweeted afterwards—generously—that “trustees have shown tremendous leadership throughout the pandemic, working to ensure students can learn safely in the classroom”.

      It was a gracious overstatement, given that B.C. school trustees have been overwhelmingly passive throughout the pandemic, leaving their management teams to liaise with ministry and health officials as they muddle through trying to make often overcrowded and understaffed schools safe and in compliance with health orders in the face of increasing COVID-19 “exposures” and calls from employees and parents to improve safety measures.

      This is no criticism of the new minister. In fact, good on her (or her staff) for coming up with something nice to say to a group that’s become increasingly irrelevant and impotent, in part because of government and in part because of its inability to understand and use it role to meaningfully represent the communities it’s elected to serve.

      New book raises important questions about the future of Canada’s school system and school boards

      Whiteside’s compliment to trustees caught my attention this week because I’ve been reading a new book by prolific Nova Scotia education writer, commentator, and consultant Paul Bennett, who has just published The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools through McGill-Queen’s University Press.

      While Bennett and I disagree on much when it comes to our education systems, he definitely knows his stuff and packs his readable book with historical context and examples from across Canada in an informative manner that ties our collective issues together in a way that few, if any, in Canada are able to with this complex topic.

      He covers a lot of ground, backed up by copious notes, figures, and tables, and he doesn’t shy away from delving into various controversies and theories on why and how the “system” has become a centralized, bureaucratic fortress that alienates students, parents, and teachers.

      Martin Dunphy

      Bennett served several years as a school trustee, and he has spent 40 years in various leadership roles in the education system. This new book is his 10th, and it chronicles the decline and disappearance of school boards in parts of Eastern Canada, along with an expansive look at the evolution of Canadian school governance, noting that “our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve.”

      Bennett and I find common ground on the decline of Canadian school boards; the reasons they’re an endangered species (in Manitoba, in particular, and on and off in Prince Edward Island); why they’ve become virtually extinct in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec; and why they may be at risk in the rest of the country.

      He says schools have been swallowed up by provincial ministries and regional school authorities. “Everywhere you look the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized K-12 education is nearly complete, marking the triumph of the system over students, parents, teachers and the engaged public.” I suspect many in B.C. who’ve run up against obstructionist school-district bureaucrats and unresponsive school trustees would agree. I do as well, to an extent.

      His book also touches on the Vancouver School Board (VSB) blowup in the fall of 2016, in which I, along with the rest of the board, were fired for refusing to pass our budget on time.

      Bennett’s book proposes a path to more “responsive, engaged, and accountable public schools”, although I’m not sure it’s entirely the right one, but it’s going in the right direction by calling for more and stronger local school governance.

      Bennett says, in a chapter entitled “School Boards in Crisis: The Withering of Local Democracy”, that today’s school boards suffer from an identity crisis, and—unfortunately and absolutely—he is right about that.

      Why do so many school boards lose their way?

      In one of his many blog posts, Bennett notes that “school board promoters can, and do, damage to the cause by conveying confused and contradictory messages about the philosophy and purpose of elected boards—and the expected role of elected trustees”.

      He cites a 2018 new year’s message to trustees from former BCSTA executive director Stephen Hansen as “providing an example of what has gone sadly wrong in school board governance” by “espousing the sort of governance philosophy that has rendered elected board members totally ineffectual”.

      Author Paul Bennett

      In reference to Hansen’s message (which doesn’t appear to be available online any more), Bennett notes that “Judging from the established ground rules, trustees are expected to behave much like children in grade school: Focus on policy and don’t mess with administrative matters; think corporate interest/regional and keep your distance from local groups; respect the code of board solidarity; express your views in a respectful manner; act as a goodwill ambassador; and come prepared to meetings (i.e., do your homework).

      “Giving the public a voice and bringing local concerns to bear on board decisions are not even mentioned as core responsibilities. No school reformers need apply because the rules of engagement are a recipe for toadyism. It’s just the kind of thinking that spelled the end of elected trustees in Nova Scotia.” Indeed.

      That was one of my beefs with the BCSTA when I was a trustee: too much cheerleading, self-congratulating, and toeing the government line, and too little focus on being responsive to communities.

      That culture continues, and it could well lead to the end of school boards here in B.C.

      More recently, trustees tell me the BCSTA’s orientation for new trustees advises that they shouldn’t speak to the news media or engage with the public on social media. Good grief. What’s the point of having local government if you don’t talk to the locals?

      As a columnist, I often contact individual trustees for comment on school board and education issues, and they tell me, increasingly, that they’re “not allowed” to talk the reporters or columnists and that only the chair can. Although it’s true the chair speaks on behalf of the board, individual trustees are elected officials who can and should speak as well, making it clear they are not speaking for the board. They need to be accountable to the public and keep as many communication channels open as possible.

      New trustees are warned not to meet with groups or individuals, and especially not union representatives, unless the entire board is present. That’s pure balderdash. Again, the whole point of local government is to have local contact. This under-siege mentality is frustrating for the public, which deserves better.

      Make the most of a whittled-down role

      I served as a school trustee for eight years, without regrets. I worked with a great caucus, and we got a lot of important work accomplished. We literally held the public’s ground in the face of relentless government pressure to close schools and sell valuable public land, and we successfully negotiated hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools and seismically upgrade several more.

      We created a model to incorporate purpose-built childcare centres on the top floor of new and rebuilt schools and started a Mandarin bilingual program, an Indigenous-focused school, and expanded early literacy intervention programs.

      Sure, the role wasn’t what it once was: trustees can no longer levy taxes, and most bargaining with employee groups is done provincially. Yet I still believe, passionately, that school boards can and should be among the most democratic institutions we have by being responsive to local values and interests.

      Aside from small-town city councils, there’s no place grassroots movements should be able to have more of an impact than on their local school boards, where they can influence policies and practices.

      Vibrant and effective school boards, where debate is informed and encouraged, and where all voices are permitted to be heard and access to trustees is open, are a key component of a high-functioning and successful school system. By most measures, Canada’s public schools are remarkably successful and produce good results in return for what the public invests in them. Do school boards have anything to do with this? I believe they do, at least in some cases.

      Unfortunately, many B.C. school boards are moving away from that model with increasingly restrictive codes of conduct that limit trustees from speaking out and engaging with those they’re elected to serve. Many have erected rigid barriers that discourage and restrict public participation. Too many take direction from their management teams, instead of the reverse. Far too much of the public’s business—because school board business is the public’s business—happens behind closed doors or in private emails instead of in public meetings, where it belongs.

      School boards are their own worst enemies

      During a reent online discussion about his new book, Bennett told me we need to blow up school boards as they are now and rebuild them, to make them more democratic and locally connected. That may be true in some provinces, but I don’t believe it to be so in B.C.

      Rather, school boards, which he says “were once the anchor of local education democracy”, need to give themselves a hard shake and decide whether they want to do the important work of transparently representing the public in decision-making or keep fussing about each other’s decorum or conduct as they head down the road to extinction.

      I hope they choose the former, but I fear they’ll carry on with the latter and we’ll all be the poorer for it, especially students.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.