Elimination of school boards an assault on democracy

Opinion
Pictou-Advocate-opinion

To the Editor:

In October 2017 the provincial government announced that Dr. Avis Glaze, an education consultant from Ontario, would conduct a review of the administrative education system in Nova Scotia. This review was to look at all of the pieces from the classroom to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

At that time, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association along with the eight member school boards came out in support of this review. After all, it had been 20 years since a similar review was done of system structures. We expected change. We were not advocating for the status quo. We want our students to do better, our communities to thrive and our young people to stay in Nova Scotia. However, we were very clear in asking the democratic, local voice remain in place with governing school boards. We did not know if this would mean amalgamation, but we certainly did not expect total elimination of the English school boards. To add a level of irony to this whole situation, many of Dr. Glaze’s recommendations actually came from the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, individual school boards and superintendents over the years. Yes, that’s right — the people who wanted changes to strengthen and improve are now being removed.

I make the point of identifying the “English school boards” because as a minority language school board, the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We are very happy the provincial government and Dr. Glaze respected that when they decided to leave CSAP with its governing school board.

For the seven English regional school boards, their voices will not remain. In Nova Scotia we are very proud to have elected African Nova Scotian school board member seats, and regional seats for First Nations school board members. This makes us unique across the country and is seen as a model other jurisdictions in Canada want to emulate. While the government maintains that these voices will still be heard through other mechanisms and organizations, we counter that by saying that’s not good enough. Gone will be the opportunity for these communities to sit around a regional table and have an influence over the delivery of education for students in their areas. Gone will be the advocates at the regional level for these students. Gone will be the people from their communities to push for their success.

Dr. Glaze cites low voter turnout and high numbers of acclamations as reasons to eliminate the English governing school boards. For years, all levels of government have battled these problems but this is not a reason to eliminate a democratically elected voice to support students. The public’s right to participate in a democratic process will now be gone in public education.

Some people may say that governing school board members are only upset because of losing a “job”. This could not be further from the truth. For one, it’s not a “job”, it’s a public service and one that every school board member feels honoured to fill. Governing school board members are at those tables for the students. They spend hours poring over data, working with superintendents and senior staff to identify areas for improvement, and hearing from community members about what their children need. There are times when certain issues may motivate people to run for school board come election time, but narrow agendas quickly dissolve when they realize how large the system is, and how these positions are responsible for all students in their region.

School boards have working relationships with School Advisory Councils, and appreciate the dedication and efforts these volunteers make. However, it is not a model that can replace governing school boards. For one, those are advisory roles, not governing. This model essentially takes all local decision making away from communities and puts it entirely into the hands of the provincial education bureaucracy . This will not help student success or communities. Every region in the province is unique, which is why every governing school board was in place to address that uniqueness. We are whole heartedly in favour of equity in education and yes, students should have access to programs and services regardless of where they live in Nova Scotia. However, they should also have access to people who understand the different challenges and opportunities in their regions, and who can respond accordingly. This cannot be done at a provincial level with “educrats”.

Governance is not exciting for most people. It’s not as tangible as classroom supports and teachers in front of students. We realize that. However, good governance creates a system where those things can thrive. Policy development and implementation, budgets, oversight and accountability are all pillars of good governance. The Nova Scotia Auditor General identified areas for governing boards to improve upon, and we were actively doing that. The Nova Scotia School Boards Association, with the support of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, were literally on the cusp of rolling out a “Made in Nova Scotia Approach” to school board governance. It was a blend of coherent and generative governance. What does this mean? Well, it focused on increased transparency and community engagement. It would have improved the system greatly, but the opportunity to demonstrate this was taken from us.

School boards received their marching orders. No policy changes, no major decisions can be made. We have been put on hold and were told to stay that way or risk action by the Minister. We believe that Nova Scotians should not accept this assault on democracy and public education. Now we wait to see how things unfold when Legislature returns on February 27.

Hank Middleton

President

Nova Scotia School Boards Association

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