This article was originally published on December 6, 2010 in the Edmonton Journal
By Larry Booi, Public Interest Alberta board chair
Alberta's newly elected school boards have by now finished with their organizational meetings, and are no doubt focusing on what they want to accomplish over their term of the next three years. They do so in a context of considerable ambiguity and uncertainty, with musings from government about changing school board governance structure, perhaps by adding appointed members to boards.
Boards are also clearly more constrained than ever by the increasingly centralized direction of education by the provincial government, by full provincial control of school board revenues, by provincial "framework agreements" to determine teacher salaries, and by a general climate of fiscal restraint on the part of the provincial government in response to the recent recession.
It is easy to see why some observers maintain that school boards have outlived their usefulness, but there is actually much that can be done by boards to make an important contribution to both public education and local representative democracy. However, in order to do so, our school boards will have to make a dramatic change in course, away from the "unanimous and anonymous" approach that has characterized too many boards in recent years, to the point where they have become complicit in their own subordination.
A more assertive, committed and democratic approach is not only possible, but badly needed in a province with such a sizable democratic deficit and an anemic political culture. The good news is that these changes can be made with little or no cost to taxpayers. Such an approach would involve the following changes:
- Become more open and transparent by getting rid of the vast majority of secret meetings and discussions. Too many boards have become accustomed to having the "real" discussions behind closed doors, followed by a mere show of hands in public meetings. The default position must be to have all discussions in public, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary (such as personnel or negotiating issues.)
- Stop acting as a mere "agent of the provincial government," and start acting more as a key element of strong local representative democracy. It is true that the provincial government has put more limitations on board power, but trustees are still locally elected representatives who should be responsive to citizens and their communities, and they need to push the limits of leadership rather than act as models of unquestioning compliance.
- Stop constraining and silencing individual trustees by unnecessarily pushing a "board corporate position." This approach has meant that once the board majority has taken a position, individual trustees must toe the line, even to the point where they have difficulty communicating their objections to constituents. This silencing is blatantly anti-democratic; if boards feel that provincial policies require such an approach, they should publicly and aggressively lobby the province to change the regulations.
- Develop more systematic ways to consult with school councils. These councils have been a good initiative in involving parents in schools; boards need to use such means as "councils of councils" to engage them in regularly giving insights and advice on issues to boards.
- Foster more systematic ways of involving citizens in educational issues and decisions. More than 70 per cent of the public do not have children in our schools, but public education issues affect all of us, and our school boards spend almost as much money as our municipal councils. More systematic citizen engagement in this public policy decision-making process would lead to more informed decisions and would strengthen communities and participatory democracy at the local level.
- Develop and implement policies that require trustees to effectively consult with constituents, and support them in their efforts to do so. If board policies require trustees to consult more broadly and engage citizens more systematically in issues and policy decisions, they will do so; providing modest resources and support will allow them to do so more effectively.
- Act as vigorous advocates for children and public education in the broader political sphere. Many of the difficulties in our schools are not "educational" in nature; hungry children don't learn well and poverty is still the greatest learning disability.
School boards and trustees have neither the mandate nor the resources to deal with these social and economic concerns, but as elected representatives they can and should lobby vigorously for the province to provide programs such as co-ordinated delivery of services to children at the school site, so that children have these needs addressed and schools can focus on their education.
There is an adage that says, "Use it or lose it."School boards and trustees can either use their power as locally elected representatives to reinvigorate democracy at the local level and provide informed leadership in public education, or they will lose it by continuing to slide quietly into irrelevance.They have three years to take the necessary actions; for the sake of public education and democracy, let's hope that they do so.