Patti Bacchus: School trustees need to listen to parents

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      Last week I wrote about how B.C.’s elected school trustees are being stifled in their roles by allegations that they’re bullying their senior managers by asking too many questions or bringing forward motions their staff don’t like.

      The allegations are investigated in secret and—in the case of the Vancouver and Victoria school boards—come from third-party complaints. Trustees are never told who is making specific allegations about them, rather that someone is making the complaint on behalf of someone else, whose identity is not disclosed.

      The investigators, who are hired by management staff, produce reports that find that trustees shouldn’t ask hard questions of staff in public meetings and that they should limit themselves in their roles, among other things.

      I cited investigations in both the Vancouver and Victoria school districts. I noted that a key focus of both was whether or not trustees permitted, or somehow encouraged, parents and union representatives to behave rudely to senior staff, and whether that amounted to bullying (apparently, it did).

      What I didn’t expect were the calls I got from parents after they read my column.

      How the trustee-bully chill is affecting parents

      The first parent to contact me has a child enrolled in a school a few districts east of Vancouver. She told me about the difficulty she had in dealing with district staff regarding support for her child with special needs. She said they told her one thing but did another. She tried to get them to put things in writing, but they refused. Promises were broken, repeatedly. When she followed up, they insisted they didn’t say things they’d said.

      Her child wasn’t getting the support he needed and the support she was assured he would get. Trustees told her they couldn’t discuss her case with her or ”interfere”. She ended up filing what’s called a Section 11 Appeal, which is what B.C. parents can do if they disagree with a district staff decision that significantly affects the education, health, or safety of their child.

      Public schools in B.C. are governed and operated in accordance with the B.C. School Act, and its Section 11 requires all school boards to establish a procedure for parents or students to appeal staff decisions if they meet certain criteria. It’s an important mechanism to ensure elected boards have final oversight when it comes to decisions that affect students in their district. Bucks get passed around a lot in school districts, but they stop at the elected board.

      As a trustee and board chair, I chaired a handful of Section 11 appeal hearings. I can’t tell you what happened in them, as they’re confidential, but I can tell you the deck is stacked heavily against parents and students in those hearings, and that the process is dysfunctional at the best of times.

      In the case of the parent who called me, her school board unilaterally decided they wouldn’t even allow her a formal in-person hearing. Rather, they went ahead and “heard” her case by written submission without telling her they were doing so. She didn’t even get a chance to make her final submission and she had no idea they were making a decision about her appeal.

      In these appeals, management staff get to tell the trustees their side of the story, and I’m guessing most, if not all, of the time trustees side with their staff. Which was the case for the parent who contacted me. Trustees know that if they don’t “support” their management staff, they too could find themselves the subject of a secret investigation based on allegations of bullying or creating a toxic workplace by not supporting their managers.

      Then another parent contacted me. And another.

      The gist of these conversations was that parents are finding increasing barriers to having direct contact with their elected school trustees, whether it’s through formal appeals or even asking questions at board meetings.

      Parents are told trustees can’t meet individually with them, or even with groups, and that they can’t get involved, which is sort of true.

      If a parent contacts a trustee about a problem they’re having with their school or school district, the trustees should be advising them on the process for getting that problem solved, referring them to the correct staff person, and asking that staff person to follow up with the parent. It sounds like many are refusing to do even that.

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      Others complained to me that trustees have come up with rigid rules around the questions they can ask at public meetings during designated question periods. Many boards refuse to permit questions about issues that are not on the meeting’s agenda, which is ridiculous.

      Trustees aren’t completely to blame

      While trustees are ultimately responsible for how they perform their roles and should be held accountable by voters, I’ve heard from several frustrated trustees as well who tell me they’re directed—by either their board’s codes of conduct or in management-led orientation sessions—to refrain from meeting with individuals and groups on their own or talking directly with parents.

      Codes of conduct that limit an individual trustee's ability to interact with constituents are flawed and should be torn up. Staff who tell elected trustees who they can and can’t talk to or meet with are wrong, although I can understand how convenient it would for them to be trustees’ sole source of information.

      What this is about

      Being a school district manager is a tough job. You have to manage your school district, with its multiple sites, fluctuating enrollment numbers, insufficient funds, and demands from parents. You have to comply with several collective agreements and, worst of all, you have to get your plans approved by a board of elected trustees.

      You’re very smart and well qualified, and your ideas are pragmatic and based on what you think is the best thing for the district overall. Sure, some plans might upset some parents, employee groups, or students, but you know what’s best and you have all the information. You just need the trustees to listen to you and, preferably, only you.

      The problem with that darned democracy is that those trustees got to where they are because they convinced people they’d represent them, fairly and honestly. They promised to listen to people and communities and make decisions in their interest.

      Sometimes people and communities don’t like the ideas district managers have, especially when it comes to closing a school or a program. Parents, students, and community members will fight those ideas by appealing directly to trustees. They’ll show up at meetings and challenge staff proposals. That creates an uncomfortable tension between management and trustees, especially if managers are insecure and lacking experience in working in a politicized, public setting, which many are.

      My advice

      Trustees tell me they’re afraid to be accused of bullying their staff, which makes them feel pressured to push parents away and support whatever their managers propose. It’s the path of least resistance and ensures no managers will file anonymous complaints about them.

      Others try to do the job more traditionally by genuinely listening to parents and community members and trying their best to open channels for people to engage in meaningful consultation processes.

      The tension is a sign of a healthy and functioning democracy. Our political systems are constructed to have checks and balances, and having elected boards comprising individual trustees is an important way to ensure the public’s wishes are factored into decisions.

      If school boards deny parents and the public opportunities to directly communicate with elected trustees, whether it’s at appeal hearings, in meetings, during board question periods, or the ability to register to make a presentation at a committee or board meeting, then it’s fair to question why we still have elected school boards.

      If trustees want to remain relevant, or remain at all, instead of being abolished—as they have been in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Prince Edward Island (which got rid of them but is now bringing them back), or Newfoundland and Labrador, which amalgamated its boards into one—they need to take their jobs seriously.

      That means hearing the voices of those who are trying to speak to you—and, no, I’m not referring to just the senior management team.

      The purpose of locally elected board is to give locals a voice in decision-making and have direct accountability to voters. Trustees need to listen and find ways to enable parents, students, and the public to make their voices heard, even if their senior managers prefer that they be silenced. They need to hear the stories behind the numbers they read in staff reports to really understand how their decisions affect students and their families.

      Refusing to talk to parents or meet with groups, setting up rigid rules about what questions can be asked, and holding appeal hearings in secret without allowing parents to make their case directly and in person are great ways to convince the public that elected school boards aren’t worth the bother and should be abolished. Who would miss them?

      I’d miss them. It would be a huge loss to local democracy, but only if boards are actually doing the job they’re elected to do.

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