Local Decision Making

Education Analyst

Local Decision Making

Katherine Wagner, Spring 2004

Over the last decade, reforms have incrementally shifted the primary focus of local education governance towards improving education outcomes through shared decision making and embedded accountability structures. What follows briefly examines some emerging trends, issues and challenges for school boards across the Canadian landscape.

Community Involvement

In 1996, New Brunswick replaced corporate school boards with three levels of parental advisory councils in an effort to concentrate local input around education concerns rather than administration. The result did not meet expectations and elected District Education Councils (DEC’s) were established in 2001. Their elected representatives must be nominated by parents of children enrolled in the district public schools, and similar to other maritime provinces, must live in the school district and may not be public school employees.

In Quebec, School Governing Boards consist of parents, staff, two non-voting community members and student representation. These site-based bodies have specific governance powers which include some education decisions and control over the financial resources of the school. District school boards exist but with a more limited role than in most other provinces.

All other Canadian jurisdictions allow for elected school councils. While most are advisory in nature there are legislative provisions for ensuring council advice is formally sought and considered. Alberta is the only province with Charter School legislation allowing site-based governance in exchange for high academic standards.

In 2001, the Ontario government enacted regulations which clearly indicate that the purpose of the school council is to “improve student achievement and enhance the accountability of the education system to parents”. Ontario school councils can make recommendations to their principals and school boards on any matter and principals and school boards must consult with school councils on identified areas affecting student learning.

British Columbia adopted similar legislation in 2002 which established School Planning Councils in all public schools. SPCs develop an annual plan for their school which includes goals and outcomes for improvement. In turn, school boards use these plans to inform an annual district accountability and improvement contract with the Ministry of Education. School boards in BC are also required to consult with SPCs around the distribution of resources, matters within the district accountability contract, and educational services/programs at the school.

Some jurisdictions are ensuring minority representation within their education governance structures. In 2000, Nova Scotia began requiring an elected African-Nova Scotian representative on local school boards. They also require a Mi’kmaq representative on each school board which has a tuition agreement with a Mi’kmaq band council. The Yukon Education Act provides for guaranteed representation of First Nations on school councils.

Performance and Productivity

In an era of competing demands for public resources, provinces are increasingly holding local governing bodies accountable for both the efficient and effective use of funds.

Generally, school boards are required to balance their local budgets and three Ontario boards (Hamilton-Wentworth, Ottawa and Toronto Districts) found themselves temporarily replaced with provincially appointed supervisors in the summer of 2002 after submitting deficit budgets.

While Canadian school boards have traditionally faced provincial intervention for budget management transgressions, as part of the trend towards increased local accountability for results, provincial legislation is being amended to include educational performance as cause for direct intervention. Modifications to the BC School Act allow the Minister of Education to appoint a special advisor to assist a board that is unable to manage financial, educational or other difficulties. The authority of the lieutenant-governor to assign an official trustee to replace a school board now includes a risk to local student achievement.

Reducing the cost of administration in order to direct more dollars to the classroom has long been the goal of school district amalgamations but it has come at the cost of local input into education. Even the largely voluntary school district amalgamations occurring in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are aimed at reducing the overall cost of administration. There is also some evidence from a recent study of Alberta school districts that large geographic distances ‘appear to mitigate against effective outcomes.’1

There is growing recognition that district administrative services can be more efficiently delivered under a shared services model. There has been some resistance to this concept as local school boards react to what they perceive as a reduction in power. However, some elected school boards are beginning to recognize the advantages of a shared service arrangement in freeing resources for instruction while still maintaining local governance structures.

British Columbia amended its School Act in 2002 to allow school boards “to share administrative services with another board, municipality or corporate entity”.

The Alberta government has responded in favour of recommendation #83 of the Alberta Commission on Learning: Provide provincial incentives and support to school jurisdictions that wish to consider joint services and amalgamations in order to improve services to their students.

Two pilots in Nova Scotia separated facility and administrative support from educational matters at the school district level. The districts shared a regional service provider responsible for managing facilities, transportation, human resources and supplying financial services support. This was done to allow the boards to concentrate their efforts on education.

Challenges and Policy Considerations

♦ Well-defined roles and responsibilities for locally elected representatives both at the district and school level are critical.

♦ Research shows that information and training for prospective and incumbent elected representatives at the district and site levels greatly increases the overall effectiveness of these governance bodies. Governments must be prepared to invest in on-going training to match the increased responsibilities assigned.

♦ There is a clear divide between rural and urban political landscapes in the public education sector. Rural trustees are often acclaimed while in many urban districts there is a much higher degree of politicization of the elected role. Combined with poor voter turnout for elections, this raises questions around who is actually represented by local governance and whether there are ways to make Boards more reflective of the communities they serve.

♦ There is a need for innovative approaches when dealing with the challenges involved with reducing education services due to declining enrolment. Statistics Canada estimates that the populations aged 5 to 13 will decline by 14% between 2001 and 2011. The most affected provinces will be Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Yukon.

♦ Modern communication technology offers opportunities for meeting the challenge of representing a diverse constituency and the possibilities of e-government.

♦ A trend to provincial level collective bargaining with teacher and support staff unions is not conducive to local variations, creating challenges for implementing local initiatives.

♦ Transparency is closely linked with accountability. In a 21st century democracy the public expects the activities of its elected politicians to be as open to public scrutiny as possible. This should include a more precise definition of what constitutes decisions/discussion which must occur in view of the public.

♦ School and district autonomy must be balanced with accountability for increased performance. Models for assessing local governance productivity in the public education context should be developed.

Katherine Wagner has been a publicly elected school trustee in BC for eight years.

1 Maquire, Patrick. C. 2004. District Practices and Student Achievement: Lessons from Alberta. SAEE