The Minister of Education for the newly formed NDP government in British Columbia recently announced that a by-election will be held this October to return a democratically selected board to the Vancouver School District. The last board was fired by the previous Minister for not passing a balanced budget plus other governance transgressions.
The concept of publicly elected school boards (boards of education in BC) is a democratic institution that has been respected in most Canadian provinces even before Confederation. Although the firing of a board is an infrequent occurrence, BC has done so twice in just over a year. Although the Vancouver firing has received the most media attention, the Okanagan Shuswap Board of Education was dismissed in 2016, with no announcement of a by-election for its return – an inequity that needs to be immediately addressed (click here for a statement from the BC School Trustees Association).
The return of all publicly elected boards is essential, but a by-election is only the first step. Democracy is more than just the people selecting individuals to represent them. It also comes with responsibilities for those elected to provide that representation appropriately. School boards rightfully complain that much of their decision-making autonomy, particularly when it comes to money matters, has been constrained by their provincial governments. Most provinces, however, actually provide little direction on the way that trustees work together – on the actual processes of governance. There are well-documented standards for good governance (see here) that fulfil a board’s democratic responsibilities to its constituents and that have been shown to positively impact student outcomes. Fortunately, due in no small part to the important role played by provincial and national trustee associations, the majority of boards meet these standards – but not all. Even previously high functioning boards can occasionally go off the rails. Sometimes it is a result of changes after an election, or pressure by community groups, external political influence, or big decisions such as school closures. The real problem is that for the most part, many of these standards for good governance are optional and ironically, can fall away when they are needed the most. In the cases of both the Vancouver and Okanagan Shuswap boards, the reports by independent experts identified significant governance problems. Democracy is messy and does not always run smoothly, which is all the more reason why boards need strong and enshrined governance practices that will sustain them during challenging times.
Good governance is the foundation on which a district’s student achievement and fiscal responsibilities are achieved. When it comes to student achievement and budgets, boards and provinces usually have clear processes and requirements in place, but this is not always the case for adhering to the other characteristics of good governance. Consequently, when boards start to have problems they may have limited rules and tools on which to rely. Good governance is too critical to be left to good intentions. Although trustee associations do an admirable job of offering professional development opportunities they are often “preaching to the choir”. The trustees who might benefit the most may not attend, and for those who do, enshrining the learning into board practice can be challenging. Boards have very limited tools at their disposal to manage the behaviour of individual trustees, and the only tool available to the Minister is to fire the whole board if things get bad enough.
Some would argue that the definition of good governance should be purely a local matter and that the performance of boards should only be assessed by constituents through election. I suggest that the application and assessment of good governance should not be left to good intentions, optional learning and four year elections. School boards make a difference and research shows that those who have strongly embedded governance practices have a greater impact on student achievement. Let’s applaud the many boards that apply these standards, but let’s be willing to explore options to ensure that the standards are met by all.
Stephen Hansen firstname.lastname@example.org