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OPINION: Canning school boards will have unintended consequences

I am outraged that the provincial government is planning to eliminate the seven elected regional school boards.

Why does my opinion matter? I probably have the most varied experience of anyone living regarding school boards in this province. I’ve been a teacher, a parent observer at board meetings, a home and school member and I’ve been married to a teacher for 30 years.

I was one of the first elected members to a Nova Scotia school board, along with former premier John Savage in 1978, when Dartmouth had the first school board election in the province. I served 10 years as a board member, five years board chair, I was an executive member of the Nova Scotia Boards Association (an honorary life member since 1989), as well as minister of Education and Advanced Education. I have seen the best and the worst school boards have to offer. My conclusion: this level of democratic decision-making needs to be protected and supported.

The Glaze report does not offer evidence to justify the extreme leap to disbanding elected school boards. Money will not be saved. Board members earn $13,000; chairs around $21,000 — the salaries total provincewide is a miniscule amount in the education budget. Other recommendations will eat up that and much more. More relevant discussion would be whether restructuring costs are to be taken from provincial school funding.

The government is further centralizing provincial control of education without critical checks and balances that school boards provide. There will be less public accountability and transparency.

The issue of representation at the local or regional level is worth a closer look. My early advocacy for elected boards arose from frustration that few women were appointed to school boards. That changed with elected boards. Currently, at least one African Nova Scotian is elected to each regional board and a Mi’kmaw representative is appointed — great advances. To lose this level of citizen engagement in meaningful decision-making and action would be a giant step backwards.

Boards have been consolidated to cover large areas and fewer voters have children in school (enrolment has declined 40 per cent in recent years); there is low media coverage, complex issues and time-consuming work — no wonder there are acclamations and low voting rates. Plus, some acclamations may be recognition of great representation and satisfaction. Hardly justification for wiping out elected boards.

The rush to implement necessary legislation temporarily hides a morass of potential unintended consequences.

What will happen to municipal supplementary funding where offered? For example, Halifax provides over $15 million each year on top of the mandated education tax levy. Will councillors be willing to provide this extra education grant to a regional executive director of education reporting to the province rather than an elected school board representing their shared constituency?

Removing school boards will not magically improve test results; pulling out a single set of results instead of analyzing trends over time is misleading. Moreover, if student achievement is only recognized and measured by standardized tests, what priority will other programming and initiatives have? School boards fought for International Baccalaureate, more special education and inclusion supports, mental health initiatives, music, art, drama, French language instruction, physical activity and other local priorities. We have to remember that few educational programs, services and activities are evaluated through standardized tests. If the main focus is on improving test scores rather than broader student achievement and development, what will be funded and prioritized in a centrally controlled system?

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Will educational decisions be openly discussed and decided in view of the public and media or done behind closed doors like the appointed Nova Scotia health authority board operates? Citizens, especially parents and guardians, have a huge stake in maintaining elected school boards. They are your safeguard for local values and interests, fair process and local access to those who make decisions. They allow the community or region to have input and some control.

I realize that school boards have been criticized and sometimes removed for their occasional misjudgment or dysfunction. The evolution of any level of government is just that — a process that can always be improved. Instead of enabling boards to analyze their challenges and providing supports, the government is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

If you are a critic of school boards due to a particular issue, imagine how you will deal with the same situation under the proposed restructuring. As you work your way up the administrative ladder, you will have to go to your MLA or the minister of education to be represented by an elected official as your advocate! Are MLAs ready for the avalanche of inquiries and concerns headed their way?

Boards get a lot right. They are responsible for policy development and review as well as monitoring a broad array of services through the superintendent. Collectively, board members have to balance funding available from other levels of government with the expectations and needs of the children, youth and parents in their communities. Boards set priorities for their region that reflect community culture and traditions. It’s a tough job. I challenge anyone keen to disband school boards to shadow a board member — read their meeting package and follow the discussion at a school board meeting as a start.

Are school boards perfect? No. But compare them to other levels of government. We have to recognize they are only as good as the people who offer and whom we choose, who are as qualified as the training and supports provided, as co-operative and respectful as the context and educational partners around them.

Do we value boards for the difficult balancing role they perform or throw them out without considering the consequences? Does the structure itself need improvement? Possibly — and school boards would be the first to suggest improvements.

In my era as a school board member, we had opportunities for joint leadership planning and training alongside representatives from the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, the Department of Education, the Nova Scotia Home and School Federation and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. There was a spirit of respect and common interests, shared focus on student well-being, commitment to consult and to work together on progressive initiatives — a very different atmosphere from today’s.

Times have changed, but this is all the more reason to keep the lay decision-makers — elected school boards — as keys to meaningful citizen engagement and protection of basic democratic processes. Otherwise, Nova Scotia, I weep for thee!

Marilyn More lives in Dartmouth.

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