Blog | October 02, 2013

By Trever Howell, Calgary HeraldNearly 20 years after the province seized taxation authority from Alberta school boards, the role of trustees has become increasingly murky and, arguably, irrelevant, says a former Calgary public school trustee and education researcher.“If the purpose is to advocate for strong public education there are probably better ways,” said Brenda Gladstone, COO of Galileo Educational Network, which operates out of the University of Calgary. “It’s a level of government we no longer need.”Gladstone was a trustee for the Calgary Board of Education between 1986 and 1992, when Alberta school boards had two main purposes: hire the superintendent and set the local school tax.“I’m just not sure what it is school boards do, the impact they have that’s positive or negative on the operating of the education system at this point,” Gladstone said. “What I can see, there are very few decisions or accountability where the bureaucrats, or a decision or recommendation is overturned and, if it is, whether it’s better.”In 1994, the province rolled out sweeping changes to the education system, which included the contentious decision to strip school boards of their taxation authority.Then-education minister Halvar Johnson said the changes were needed so money could be more equally distributed between rich and poor school boards by the province.School boards squawked and threatened legal challenges. Education advocacy groups cried foul. Newspaper columnists wondered what purpose, if any, school boards would have without the power to tax.“The powerful school board of today will become merely the caretaker, bus driver and middle money manager of the near future,” former Calgary Herald columnist Don Martin wrote in early 1994.“There has to be a serious conversation throughout the province with all school boards as to how relevant elected school boards are, given that they really don’t have that much power to do a whole lot anymore,” said Josh Traptow, acting chair for the Association for Responsible Trusteeship in Calgary Schools.“They have the ability to approve their budget, the ability to close schools (but) they don’t have the ability to build new schools, that’s a provincial thing,” Traptow added.Jacquie Hansen, president for the Alberta School Boards Association, said the province’s 1994 decision to take away taxation power has, to some degree, solved one problem — funding equity — but has created another in its wake. “Some would say that it’s a good thing because we all have the same sort of base level of opportunities for our kids, and I would agree with that,” said Hansen. “However, without the taxation authority, it’s more difficult to engage more directly with our constituents.”“When we lost the ability to tax, people couldn’t see tangibly where their tax dollars were going,” she added. “Now it’s a little bit lost. We know that people pay into it, but it goes into a large pot at the provincial level and then gets divvied out.”It also created an environment where the relationship between school boards and the province has become a little too cosy, suggests Bill Moore-Kilgannon, executive director for Public Interest Alberta.“Unfortunately, there is a sort of political culture that has developed with far too many of them that somehow they’re representing the government back to the people,” said Bill Moore-Kilgannon.“But that’s the importance of them being locally elected,” he added. “At the end of the day, they have to be responsive to the citizens, not to dictates of the provincial government.”School boards’ independence and authority was further called into question in 1999 when education minister Lyle Oberg disbanded the public school board in Calgary, which had, depending on one’s viewpoint, become either too dysfunctional or too powerful.“Our board was removed for being too politically effective, being more credible than the minister and undermining the government,” said Jennifer Pollack, one of the CBE board members at the time. “This board isn’t doing that. They’re keeping their heads down and don’t do anything.”Outgoing CBE trustee and board chair Pat Cochrane, who came onto the board following the 1999 dismissal, said the new group of trustees quickly developed a more focused governance model, in part, to restore public confidence in the CBE.“The power of trustees has been limited over the years, but I think your ability to influence the school system is huge as a trustee,” Cochrane said in a recent interview. “I have seen, in my time as a trustee, the system become more and more focused on student learning.”“We’re not like the legislature or city council,” she added. “We’re a board and our authority is limited by the school act and by what the education minister decides to delegate to school boards.”More recently, the province decided to, somewhat, broaden school boards’ authority under the new Education Act, which grants school boards “natural persons powers.”“Previously, boards were only able to do things that the School Act actually gave them permission to do,” said CBE trustee Lynn Ferguson. “With natural persons power, it gives school boards much more flexibility…that would look like, for example, we might borrow some money to do a long-term project that we feel is necessary for improved maintenance in our schools.”Still, Gladstone remains unconvinced, recommending local school board superintendents report directly to the deputy minister of education. Parents, she added, could voice concerns to their school councils or MLA.“That, in itself, would make it more transparent,” Gladstone said. “It would be better governance, and the transparency would need to come from policies that would be set up to make it more transparent.”thowell@calgaryherald.comTwitter@TSHowellRead the article at The Calgary Herald.