The recent dismissal of Vancouver’s board of education (VSB) by BC’s Minister of Education has created a significant amount of anger, angst and ink. Although the firing of a board is a fairly rare occurrence, it does raise important questions about democracy, the political aspects of trusteeship, and the relationship between boards and professional staff.
One of the main arguments of those opposed to the VSB firing is that it is an affront to democracy. There is some truth to this in that the nine trustees were elected by the citizens of Vancouver to represent the educational hopes and aspirations of that community. Without those nine individuals at the board table, the diversity of representative voices has all but been eliminated – temporarily at least. That said, those who lament the blow to democracy must remember that this decision was made by a higher level of government which was also democratically elected to serve the citizens of the province. Like it or not, trustees know that their boards obtain authority from and are answerable to the provincial government, not just to those who locally elected them. The overriding authority of the provincial government is clear in the School Act and has been consistently reaffirmed by the courts. While some may question the reasoning of the government’s decision to fire the board, we should not question its democratic legitimacy to do so.
Politics, Partisanship, and Advocacy
Some of the reasons cited for firing the board were its failure to pass a balanced budget in June as required by the School Act, and reports of a dysfunctional relationship between some trustees and senior staff. The former is a known firing offence and the latter indicates the Ministry’s increasing interest in the effectiveness of board governance. But there is more to it than that. Those who have followed the politics of education in British Columbia are quite familiar with the long history of partisan sniping between various factions within the VSB, and in particular between the VSB and the provincial government. Unlike the majority of boards in BC, Vancouver trustees run on political party slates. These partisan foundations have resulted in rancorous relationships, voting in blocks, and using the power of the majority as a pulpit to attack the provincial government of the day.
While there is nothing to stop individual trustees from representing political parties, boards are not designed to operate in that way. School boards (boards of education as they are called in BC) were established on the corporate board model, not the parliamentary model. Unlike in parliament where you have one party in power and others in opposition, school boards are intended to be a single (corporate) entity. After debate, votes are taken and the board is then supposed to act as a single voice to its staff and constituents on that policy – no ongoing attacks from the “other side”, no mixed messages to staff, and no ongoing grandstanding, interviews and social media wars. This is not to say that trustees are not politicians – they are because they are elected to make important decisions on behalf of the public. But the mistake that some trustees make is that they choose to represent certain parts of the public over the whole and see themselves as defenders rather than collaborators.
In VSB’s case, partisan politics bled over to the larger provincial political stage. There is much confusion about and misuse of the term “advocacy” in this regard. As representatives of their communities, advocacy is a legitimate role for school boards. They should be advocating for more resources for their students from the provincial government, which holds all of the funding. Canadian school boards and their provincial associations have a long history of advocacy for students, but they normally do it in respectful, non-partisan ways. Provincial governments should have a high degree of acceptance of such advocacy, but when it devolves into consistent and blatant partisan attacks it should not be a surprise that the government will eventually lose patience and exercise its authority. Conversely, if provincial governments misuse that authority their performance can be reviewed at the next election.
Before its dismissal, the VSB also made headlines when six of its most senior district staff went on stress leave as a result of alleged bullying by some of the trustees. A few things should be noted in this regard. Firstly, there is always some degree of overlap and tension between lay control and professional expertise, between the elected policy-makers and the employed administrators of governance. Most boards develop good working relationships with their professional staff. There are no truly successful boards that don’t, in part because they can’t get anything done without them. This critical relationship works best when there are strong levels of trust and understanding. That said, the line between elected officials and administration is not always distinct or, unfortunately, discussed. Some trustees will say they were only doing their due diligence when questioning staff, but there is a difference between seeking information for board decision-making versus micromanagement and badgering. It is not unheard of for relationships with CEOs to be strained to the point of leaving or being fired. But when the whole senior leadership team calls in sick it is a sign of major problems.
In addition to the inherent tensions between different levels of government, interpretations of advocacy, and relationships with senior staff, there is a general lack of understanding of the co-governance roles that exist among the Ministry of Education, boards and senior staff. These three bodies, although not equal in purpose or power, are meant to act collaboratively as a governance team. They each have distinct but complimentary functions. At times they may not agree, particularly when it comes to resources, but when parts of these relationships break down it is time for a reset. The vast majority of boards get this right and work hard to keep it all balanced. Board work is not easy and I have immense respect for those who put themselves forward to serve the public in this way. While nobody wants to see a board fired or have boards feel intimidated by that potential, we must respect the nature of the co-governance role and understand the necessity to fix it when it is broken.