In my last post, I discussed government expectations that school trustees should possess specific skills and knowledge to be successful in their governance roles. This raises some interesting questions related to roles, equity and the essence of democracy itself.
When I was the Executive Director of the BC School Trustees Association we argued against suggestions from the Auditor General’s office that trustees should be selected based on a set of financial and other governance skills. We weren’t objecting to the concept that good governance is a skill – board and trustee development is part of the Association’s mandate. We objected to the inference that this be a pre-election qualifier for trustee candidates and that boards should be made up of members with differing skills so that the board as a whole would have a full complement of expertise. This may be fine for boards in the private sector or those appointed by the government, but not those democratically elected. Put simply, it is the democratic right of communities to elect whomever they choose, regardless of their backgrounds, level of education or experience. Yes, we all want to elect the best representatives possible, but that should be up to the electors to decide. To do otherwise is a step away from democracy. To be clear, I am not suggesting that it is okay for elected officials at any level of government to be or remain unskilled after their election. I strongly believe that it is incumbent on school trustees to be the best that they can be through orientation programs, in-services, and professional development programs offered through their provincial associations. It may be a democratic right to get elected without leadership skills, but it is a responsibility to your district and the role itself not to remain so.
A second related matter is the concept of equity. The government’s expectation for good governance skills should apply equally to all levels of government, not just boards of education. While there has been increasing attention to the skills required for school trustees I have not seen the same suggested for municipal/regional councils or the provincial government itself. Again, I am all in favour of trustees obtaining skills and knowledge to help them be successful, but this should apply equally to all elected officials. If it’s good for the goose it should be good for the gander.
The expectation for skilled trustees also raises the important issue of role clarity. In a school district, who is supposed to be doing what? I have discussed role clarity in previous posts, but related to skill acquisition it is important that we understand the type and depth of skills needed by trustees versus senior staff. For example, the Auditor General has recommended (as well as the Watson Report on School District 83) that school trustees should have sufficient financial expertise to oversee the running of a multi-million dollar budget. Fair enough. But the key word is “oversee”. This means that board members should be able to understand budget reports and financial statements presented by the Secretary-Treasurer. They should also have the knowledge to know what information they should be getting and what questions they should be asking about that information. These are important skills, but less than what one would expect of the financial officer preparing and presenting the information. School trustees are not Secretary-Treasurers. They set expectations and monitor compliance, but should not be intimidated against running for election because they don’t have the expertise of an accountant.
The same can be said for the role differences between the Superintendent and trustees. The Superintendent is the education leader for the school district and should have in-depth knowledge of curriculum development, instructional skills, school management etc. Trustees set goals for student achievement in the district and monitor how the professional staff is achieving those goals. They need to know what information they should be getting from the Superintendent and what questions they should be asking. But they do not need expertise in the pros and cons of various reading or math instructional techniques.
Model the Way
My personal experience has shown that the vast majority of school trustees fully support the importance of developing good governance skills. However, I have also seen budget lines for trustee development become vulnerable when the dollars get tight. On the surface, this seems to make sense – wanting to put every dollar possible directly towards students. But in the long run, this sells both students and the board short. While the optics of this may be good, in reality, trustee development funds make up a minuscule portion of the overall budget. Trustees would be extremely hesitant to cut professional development funds for the Superintendent or other senior staff members. Supporting ongoing leadership development is leadership. If we believe that boards make a difference (and they do), then knowledgeable and skilled boards make a bigger difference. Trustees should be models of their beliefs about the importance of learning – for students, staff and all leaders, including themselves. They should never be ashamed to make reasonable investments in improving their own abilities to lead their districts. As the old saying goes, if you think education is expensive then consider the cost of the alternative. So, here is a call to all trustees – do a board self-review, identify areas for further growth, then call your provincial trustee association for assistance.