Making Schools Work

The Council to Improve Classroom Conditions is steaming along. In the process of addressing particular issues, it is revealing some larger truths.

The Council was appointed as part of the legislation to end the labour dispute with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. It includes nine teachers, a parent, a student, and a guidance counsellor, together with the Deputy Minister and a union representative as co-chairs. It is addressing many of the working conditions issues that teachers have been airing.

Most recently, it has been looking at attendance policy. Anecdotally (the department does not have statistics), unexcused absences have been a large and growing problem at all levels. For the younger students, the problem is most often with the parents.

The Council has come up with a sensible-looking draft policy which provides an escalating series of responses for chronic unexcused absences, and identifies the respective responsibilities of students, teachers, principals, school boards, and the department.

This is all good, but why has the department had no policy? Instead, each school board has its own policy, which don’t appear to be working very well. Can it make sense for different boards to have different policies? Should an attendance problem in Annapolis be treated differently than one in Amherst or Antigonish?

The Council does not think so—it proposes no regional variations.

There are many other areas where polices are set at the board regionally rather than by the province. Does each school board need to be puzzling through the right policy for playing the national anthem? Should boards have different policies on dealing with allergies, illnesses, or accidents? Should they have different policies for special education, food and nutrition, student travel? For maintaining heating systems or cleaning classrooms?

It seems likely that assembling province-wide groups like the Council to come up with policies on these topics would not result in differences between boards.

At the same time, the boards seem to have problems making the existing policies work. The existing board-level policies on attendance have not been effective.

Although there is not a “no-fail” policy at the provincial or board level, many teachers and principals have been acting as if there were. Current school board policies and practices around retention and advancement are inconsistent. Addressing this policy is another priority for the Council.

Konrad Yakabuski, in Monday’s Globe and Mail, delivered a harsh judgement on school boards across Canada: “They cannot even govern themselves, much less look out for the students in their charge. They are plagued by petty ideological battles, personality conflicts, incivility and sheer incompetence.”

He continues: “The number of cases of provincial education ministers being forced to intervene directly in the management of dysfunctional school boards, even firing entire slates of trustees, keeps growing.” Nova Scotia has had its share of that.

The argument that school boards form a part of the democratic framework skates on thin ice. In the 2016 elections for school boards in Halifax, three of the candidates were acclaimed; voter turnout in the other five was less than 20%, even though it was on the same day as municipal elections.

For the vast majority of policies, a single framework for the province would suffice. Having that set by a cluster of bureaucrats in Halifax would be a bad idea. But a lesson can be learned from the operations of the current Council that province-wide groups, appropriately knowledgeable, can come up with generally workable policies.

Likewise, it will always be appropriate to have administrative support resources located around the province. The Department of Education head office should have a minimum of employees involved in operations.

So, should there be school boards at all? Yakabuski’s judgement is sometimes right, but is unfair to the many boards that operate properly and provide valuable sensitivity to what is happening in their regions. What might a narrower mandate look like?

  1. Most policies should be the same across the province, excepting those for which there is a compelling argument for differentiation.
  2. The department should audit boards to see if policies are being implemented, and whether they are achieving the intended result.
  3. Operational activities of general application, such as payroll and benefits, should be managed in one location with regional data inputs. A single website framework, with each region able to control its content, would save money. None of these centralized functions needs to be in Halifax.
  4. Other operational activities, such as facilities management and staffing, should continue to be regionally managed.
  5. Provincial politicians are delighted to download to school boards the responsibility for choosing which schools to close in rural areas with dwindling populations, while reserving to themselves the pleasure of announcing the building of new schools.

The present division of labour between the regional school boards and the department is inefficient and ineffective, and has contributed to the malaise among teachers. It needs to be fixed.

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