Most of the articles on this blog focus on the importance and improvement of locally elected school boards, but no matter how skilled any single board may be, it cannot be its best in isolation. Most provinces have school board/trustee associations that provide support and advocacy on behalf of their members. There is also the Canadian School Boards Association, which brings these provincial associations together. Since membership in these associations is voluntary (as it should be) occasionally a local board will reconsider, or actually drop its membership. The reasons most frequently cited are financial or political – the membership fees could be spent better locally, or the board isn’t happy with the level of advocacy being done by the provincial association. With the greatest of respect for those boards who have done so or may consider it in the future, a decision to not be a part of the greater whole is short-sighted and detrimental both to your own district and trusteeship overall. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why membership has its benefits.
One of the recurring themes in this blog – supported by research – is that good governance makes a positive difference to student outcomes, and that good governance must be learned. There is a skill set to governance that does not come automatically with your election. While local retreats and workshops are helpful, there is no substitute for the quality and depth of professional development and the networking opportunities provided by provincial and national associations. Trustees who baulk at allocating funds for their own development are being penny wise and pound foolish. You would not consider depriving teachers, principals or your superintendent of ongoing professional development, so unless you think that your leadership doesn’t make a difference, why would you not want to invest in your own learning as a board? Good leaders are continuous learners. Those who lead public education should model this.
It is a fact of school board life that despite the critical importance and value of local governance, school boards are constituted and funded by provincial governments. The relationship and attitudes about locally elected school boards have waxed and waned from province to province and year to year. During good times and challenging times, your provincial association has been working on your behalf to advocate for increased/sustainable funding and legislation that supports the value and autonomy of locally elected boards. This advocacy is not always obvious. Beyond the occasional headline, rally or strongly worded letter, there is continuous and relentless communication with Ministry of Education officials, often at the highest levels. The Presidents I have worked with spent countless hours in meetings and on the phone with our Ministers and Deputy Ministers, providing sometimes subtle and sometimes very strong advocacy on a myriad of issues. Successful advocacy is not always adversarial. It is also about building co-governance relationships where your association is seen by the province as a trusted and valid voice of school boards. Occasionally an individual board may feel that their association hasn’t sufficiently taken the current government to task, but it is important to remember that school boards – individually and collectively – are intentionally non-partisan. At the provincial level governments will come and go, but the need to advocate for public education is on-going and transcends party lines. This level of advocacy is vital and beyond what any individual board can accomplish. As the old saying goes, hang together or hang separately.
Policy, Legal, Communications and Other Services
Although the majority of matters that a board spends its time on are local most of them are also being faced by other boards. Whether it’s a policy on transportation, bullying, school configuration or just about anything else, there is collective wisdom and support that can help guide local decision-making. Most provincial associations provide direct assistance to individual member boards in addition to legislative updates, policy guidelines and databases. I personally know of several instances where a phone call with an association lawyer, communications expert or policy advisor has saved a board more money than its membership fees plus its reputation. Many associations also provide group rates on insurance and other benefits that individual boards would not attain on their own.
Together We Stand
No board is an island. Although you govern locally you play a critical part in our public education system – locally, provincially and nationally. When elected you benefited from a governance heritage acquired over decades. The skills, attitudes and knowledge that have strengthened and sustained the governance of public education have been gained collectively. You are part of a grand endeavour, one of Canada’s 370 or so school boards, supporting over five million students and spending approximately $48 billion tax dollars annually. Canadian citizens were electing school trustees long before their provincial and federal representatives. You are, without exaggeration, the guardians of public education. It is an awesome and humbling responsibility that cannot be fulfilled alone. So, the next time you are preparing your annual budget and think it might be a good idea to sacrifice your own development and support to reallocate that very small percentage of the overall budget to other line items, please think again. Canada is a world leader in public education thanks in no small part to its governance. It did not happen by chance and it did not happen in isolation. Any trustee on your board or member of the public who may question the value of your provincial membership needs to be helped to see the bigger picture. The importance, quality and success of your governance role are far too critical to be treated as a discretionary line item.