Patti Bacchus: Tips for new school trustees

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      Hundreds of school trustees gathered at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Vancouver last week for the annual B.C. School Trustees’ Association (BCSTA) “academy”. They were offered sessions on running effective meetings, dealing with the news media, and understanding Indigenous issues in education.

      They also heard updates from the Ministry of Education and a speech from Education Minister Rob Fleming.

      I attended half a dozen BCSTA academies when I chaired the Vancouver School Board (VSB), and I enjoyed the chance to meet trustees from around the province, to learn about what was happening in other school districts, and to hear some interesting speakers.

      What I didn’t enjoy was the annual overdose of back-patting and cheerleading, how frequently the words “transformative” and “innovative” were repeated, and how little substance there was to many of the sessions.

      The first year I went, I was a brand-new trustee and board chair with questions about my role and how to deal with a government that seemed hell-bent on dismantling the public-education system. I learned some useful things from experienced BCSTA members, but I also heard a lot of things that turned out to be more matters of opinion than fact and some things that were just plain incorrect.

      It turns out I’m not the only one who came away from a BCSTA academy feeling that way.

      Over the years, many B.C. school trustees have contacted me for advice or to clear something up they are unsure about. This year has been no different. Newly elected trustees are often confused about the “orientation” they’re getting, from their management staff or at the BCSTA academy. In my experience, school-district managers know a lot about educating and district operations but precious little about governance. They generally start out as teachers and move up to administrative positions, but few have served in public office. Yet many end up advising elected trustees about how to perform their elected roles, and they often do so quite poorly, which leads to bad practice and weakened, dysfunctional boards.

      I’ve had a flurry of calls and requests from new trustees to “pick my brain” since the recent trustee elections, and I figured I’d share the advice and clarifications I’ve been giving out to those who’ve contacted me. So here goes.

      New trustees are often warned to watch what they say and that only the chair can speak for the board. That is good advice, and it’s true the chair is the board’s spokesperson. However, trustees can and should speak for themselves. They are free to speak to reporters and post on social media as long as they don’t imply they are speaking for the board. If they disagree with a board decision, they are free to say so and state why as long as they don’t misrepresent the board’s decision.

      A few new trustees tell me they’ve been advised to avoid ever posting on social media. Although there’s no question that using social media irresponsibly can land you in hot water, it’s also an efficient and easy way to engage with the public and stay accessible. I used Twitter extensively as a trustee, as it’s a quick and easy way to share information, answer questions, and gather feedback. It takes up time, but it is a trustee's job to engage with the public, not hide from it. Use social media, and use it wisely.

      Several trustees have told me their staff or colleagues advise them not to meet with individuals or groups to discuss school-district issues. That’s absurd. Being open and accessible is part of being a publicly elected official. You can meet with whomever you want, when you want. Just don’t share confidential information or make promises that aren’t yours to make.

      Others have asked me if it’s okay to visit schools. Absolutely! In fact, that was one of my favorite things to do as a trustee. School visits reminded me what we were working for and always energized and inspired me when I’d been spending too much time in the boardroom. They helped me understand the challenges schools were dealing with and why they needed trustees’ support.

      What trustees shouldn’t do, however, is show up at schools unannounced or attempt to interfere in any way with school operations. If you want to visit a school, or if someone from a school invites you, contact the school principal in advance and ask if it’s a convenient time to come. Check in with the office when you arrive, so school staff know you’re in the building.

      Despite what some trustees tell me they’ve been told, trustees should respond to all their emails and phone calls if they possibly can. As a VSB trustee, I got a lot of emails and calls (my personal cell-phone number was on the VSB website). During difficult budgets or consultations about school closures, the volume of emails and calls spiked. I did my best to respond to every single one, even if I had to pretty much cut and paste my replies. When I wasn’t the board chair, I still replied, although the chair would give the board’s official response. The few exceptions would be when someone was embroiled in a legal dispute with the district and the board’s legal counsel advised me not to respond.

      People still thank me for those personal responses and my willingness to engage with them on even small issues. Yes, it was time-consuming, but I didn’t run for office to ignore the people I was elected to represent. If a trustee doesn’t reply to your email or phone call, that’s them telling you that now they’re elected they can’t be bothered and don’t care about what you have to say. If they tell you the chair will respond on their behalf, call them out on that. They’re elected too and have an obligation, in my opinion, to respond to those they serve. If I could do it, they can too. No excuses.

      Use your own words

      I gave a lot of speeches when I was a trustee and board chair. Sometimes I gave several in the course of a week. I wrote all of them myself. That was important to me. I wasn’t a bureaucrat. I was an elected official and ran for office because I was passionate about public education. I sincerely appreciated the people who worked in the school system and the families that entrusted us with their children’s education. When I spoke at a graduation, a retirement celebration, a signing ceremony, a student forum—or any other event—I wanted to do so in my own words, in a way that reflected my passion, sincerity, and appreciation for those to whom I was speaking. It was also a ton of work, but worth it. Trustees should decline prewritten scripts from their staff, although if they’re new to the role, they might find them useful as a guideline. Write your own stuff if you can. Be authentic.

      Remember that anything you write in your trustee emails is subject to freedom-of-information laws. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see printed on the front page of a newspaper. When the former B.C. Liberal government hired a former deputy minister as a “special advisor” to the VSB, he asked our management staff to give him access to our email accounts with neither our knowledge nor consent in what I can only imagine was a fishing expedition intended to find some way to discredit us for drawing the public’s attention to education underfunding. I was glad I’d always followed that rule when I thought about him browsing through my messages and finding nothing with which to smear me.

      Insist on meaningful consultation and information

      As a trustee, you’ll have to vote on some really tough decisions. Whether it’s a controversial budget cut, a catchment-boundary change, a bus-fee increase, or a school closure, you need to ensure your vote is an informed one. Insist on meaningful consultation prior to voting and getting all the information you need. That isn’t always easy, and your management staff may see things differently. They won’t be voting, however—you will be. Insist and persist until you get all the information you need to make an informed decision and so that no one can ever claim they weren’t heard by the trustees prior to voting.

      Do your homework

      Your staff will give you reports, data, and lots of information and recommendations. It’s important to read all of it in advance of meetings. Beware of too many “verbal” staff reports or presentations that aren’t provided in advance—being slammed with a bunch of information at a meeting can result in poor decisions. Ask your staff to provide all information possible in advance of meetings so you can be prepared and have questions ready. It’s also important to do as much of your own, independent homework as possible so you understand all the implications of what you are discussing and what you may be voting on.

      Resist secrecy

      School boards’ work should be done in public meetings, except in cases involving individual students or staff members, contract negotiations, legal matters, and transactions involving real-estate sales, purchases, or leases (although the outcomes can usually be made public). In reality, many boards do a lot more behind closed doors, and that’s generally poor practice that doesn’t serve the public well.

      My advice to trustees is to ask for topics being discussed in private to be moved to public meetings, except in cases where personal privacy or board negotiations would be compromised. Be wary of “workshops” held outside the public eye and ask for those discussions to be held in public meetings. Many trustees have complained to me about managers pressuring them to get their support for various initiatives in private meetings before going into public sessions. Avoid that whenever possible.

      Where governance ends and operations start

      It’s the trustees’ job to govern and managers' job to manage. Trustees are told to stay out of operations and govern “from the balcony” by providing policy direction, a strategic plan, and setting the district’s annual budget. That’s excellent advice, in theory. In practice, many areas overlap and the trustees are the public interface. Parents, students, and staff often bring operational matters to trustees’ attention. That can be anything from students not getting the courses they need in their timetable to unleashed dogs using school playfields as toilets to lead in their kids’ school water. It can be how long it takes to shovel snow from school sidewalks to whether their seismically unsafe school should be upgraded or torn down and replaced.

      Some of these are big issues and some are small. Some can be referred to the superintendent of schools to deal with and others require a board response. As a board chair, I worked with two superintendents and one interim superintendent. Each had a different operating style when it came to whether they were comfortable having the trustees deal with various managers directly or whether they wanted to be the sole contact to the board. I respected each superintendent I worked with and enjoyed the chair-superintendent working relationships that are so critical to a school board and district’s success. Trust was key. I learned that when it came to the many grey-area issues, the best way to deal with them was to sit down and determine the best path forward and whether an issue should be dealt with by the board or by staff. The lines aren’t black and white, unfortunately, but good, respectful relationships can keep things on track.

      Remember, however, that regardless of the issue, the buck stops with the board, and you are accountable to the public and your stakeholders.

      Be respectful and appreciative

      School-district managers often have huge workloads, like everyone else in the school system. They tend to do the best they can to support the board’s work. Speak to them respectfully and thank them. Appreciate the time and long hours they put in. That doesn’t mean you have to accept their advice or not question information they provide—just do it respectfully.

      Keep your promises

      Remember all those promises you made when you ran for office? How you were going to be accessible and open and fight for the people you represent? Tack those promises or your election promises somewhere you can see them, and review them at least quarterly. Check to see if you’re keeping promises and making progress on the things you said you’d do.

      Remember, you are accountable to the people you are elected to represent. Respect the advice district staff give you, but also remember they seldom have the expertise or experience to fully understand your role. Don’t hesitate to seek advice from qualified professionals outside the district when it comes to governance questions.

      If you’re a new trustee (or even an experienced one) feel free to message me via twitter at @pattibacchus if you have your own questions.

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