There has been a lot of discussion over the last several years about the role of School Board Trustees, and whether they help make the schools that they govern better or worse.
Much of this debate has been generated by those who advocate for charter schools and vouchers (listen to the arguments made by Maddie Di Muccio on the January 2019 TVO interview). They seem to believe that the existence of elected school boards stands in the way of their dream of fragmenting universal public schooling into a collection of one-off stand-alone parent-controlled schools. (They are probably right.)
Typically overlooked in the call to “eliminate” school boards, is a simple truth: every organization will have some sort of governance structure – most often called a “Board”. [“Governance” is MBA jargon for someone looking over management’s shoulder to:
make sure things don’t go off the rails, follow the money, figure out what to do next, make sure people are doing a good job, look into corners and closets for embarrassing secrets someone is trying to hide, ask awkward questions, and demand clear answers. Every effective governance process must include an element of skeptical tension between management and the board.]
If we allow elected school boards to be disbanded for ideological reasons or for their “inefficiencies”, the question becomes “what governance structure do we put in its place“. Here are the options.
GOVERNANCE BY AN ELECTED BOARD
Elected boards provide a combination of independence, commitment, connection to school communities, public profile, and the ability to have information beyond what is in management-prepared. They are the only elected officials whose sole purpose is promoting student achievement and well-being. All others need to balance a large number of priorities, often putting other issues ahead of school excellence.
The majority of elected trustees bring their energy, skills, insight, commitment, time, and care for the community they serve. They rarely seek out attention, and creating no scandal. They remain largely in the background doing the unglamorous work of (among other things):
- reading reports,
- chasing down information,
- attending committee meetings,
- listening (and trying to help) parents and students and teachers who call with a problem,
- helping communities to organize and effectively lobby for change
- understanding and improving the systems and procedures that drive school operations
- reviewing lawsuits, and contracts, and laws, and financial statements, and construction plans
- celebrating, and sometimes grieving, with the communities that they are part of.
Elected school boards sometimes lack a good mix of skills (e.g. too many lawyers or none at all, no-one with management or purchasing or facilities or community organization experience). Sometimes (but less often than most boards either appointed or elected) the diversity of life experiences is less than that of the communities they represent.
The flip side of “randomness” of the skills and diversity of an elected school board is that their constituents know them, feel like they “own” them. This gives an effective trustee access to information, an ability to connect disparate groups with a common cause, a platform to use to push for change, an independence from everyone from her/his constituents, and a perspective that goes all the way from individual classrooms to the Provincial or State cabinet table.
Some elected trustees serve 10, 15, or more years, much longer than is likely for any appointee. This longevity provides critically important “institutional memory” and continuity to organizations whose senior managers often serve less than a dozen years.
The draw-backs of elected trustees are painfully obvious to everyone:
- some trustees are in it to promote a possible political career
- some trustees are incompetent or offensive
- some trustees are lazy or negligent.
These trustees, being publicly elected, exhibit their failings for all to see, giving some people the impression that all or most trustees are not doing a good job.
GOVERNANCE BY THE PROVINCE/STATE/NATION
This may seem to be the natural way to make sure that schools are running well. After all it is these governments that distribute the money that pays for public schools, and set the laws and policies that define how schools will work. Why would anyone go to the expense and bother to elect a group of citizens to second guess the big guys with the money and the power? It’s “inefficient”, messy, and slows things down.
Governments are juggling lots of balls: the economy, crime, food safety, road construction, health care, armies, housing, disaster relief, taxation, immigration, human rights, diplomacy, …… Education, though very important is just one of many, and not the biggest one at that. Perhaps the biggest ball of all is to get re-elected. So when (not if, but when) the powers-that-be decide to sacrifice students needs for the sake of the “larger good”, no-one has the governance authority to push-back and say “Hold on, that’s not right”, or even “Can’t you try to find a better way”. If you think that children’s education is too important to be at the mercy of partisan political calculations, you don’t want this type of “fox guarding the hen house” governance oversight of your schools.
(This seems to be the option implied by charter school / school voucher advocates. They often state that a fully decentralized system would have individual schools governed by their own school councils. This clearly means that no body would provide a governance constraint on the Provincial/State Ministry/Department of Education, which would in effect serve as its own governing body.)
GOVERNANCE BY AN PPOINTED BOARD
In theory this is an ideal solution. The members appointed to the Governing Board can have the right mix of expertise (accounting, construction, communications, public health, child development, legal, human resources, purchasing, negotiations, etc.) so that no matter what the issue, at least one member will have the background needed to spot problems or opportunities quickly. And since nearly every important problem or opportunity requires a solution that involves several disciplines, a board with a wide range of skills will be very helpful to management. Add diversity of life experiences and backgrounds to the mix, and you have a well-rounded board.
If this is how things actually turned, Fortune 500 corporations should never run into big problems or scandals. If the theory worked:
- the highly-paid experts on the appointed boards of Enron, Nortel, and Lehman Brothers would have taken the time and effort to carefully scrutinize their company’s books and seen the web of questionable inter-company loans or accounting entries that defrauded thousands of investors, wiped out the pensions of their employees, and destroyed their companies.
- the dedicated board members of VW and Facebook would have been alert to warnings by middle managers that in time to have instructed their CEO’s to immediately stop bogus emissions-testing schemes (VW) and violation of users’ privacy (Facebook) before shareholders lost many tens of Billions of dollars.
- the astute far-sighted members of the boards of KMart and Sears would have figured out how to compete with Wal-Mart and Amazon, while those at Apple would never have fired founder Steve Jobs (and eventual returning saviour) by replacing him with Pepsi-Cola’s John Scully.
These examples of high-profiles corporate catastrophes aren’t meant to cast blame on the board members involved. They are only meant to bring some reality to a tempting theory.
Appointed boards may bring balance and expertise, but they very often lack context, connection, and commitment. It takes 2 or 3 years for anyone, even an expert, to get a good handle on the functioning of medium-sized school board, longer for a mammoth board like Toronto, Chicago, or Miami. Peak effectiveness takes longer still; this requires building a network of trusting relationships with people inside the organization who are willing to “break ranks” and speak uncomfortable truths. Effective governance relies on people pointing board members to the trail of bread-crumbs. Few appointees will put in the dozens of hours a week, or the decade of time, needed to be able to flush out the catastrophes and opportunities hidden around them.
Equally as important is for board members to hear directly from parents and teachers (in the case of school boards) or customers and front-line employees (in the case of corporations). But appointed board members are anonymous. When upset with a bank, or a hospital, or a favourite store, people don’t pick up the phone a call a board member – even if the board members’ contact information is available. Complaints, concerns, and opportunities are usually funnelled through various “customer relations” departments; those that reach a senior manager are made to “go away” so it doesn’t use up precious executive time. It never gets to a board member unfiltered.
This may be “efficient”, but it means that valuable information is covered up, discarded, or ignored.
As with all democratic institutions, elected School Boards are imperfect, their quality depending in large part on who the voters elect. On balance, it seems that:
- Elected Trustees usually lead to higher quality schools when compared to the other governance structures that have been proposed
- Concerns raised about the quality of elected Trustees apply equally to every other level of elected representation
- Confusion about the legislated responsibilities of Trustees (including among Trustees and school board managers) leads to unnecessary conflicts that damage the quality of our schools and the reputation of School Boards.
- Municipal Councils and Provincial Governments regularly intrude on the proper jurisdiction of School Boards and that these intrusions hurt our schools.
[Failures of governance exist in every type of organization, including in some large private corporations that recruit and appoint highly qualified and well-paid people to sit on their boards:
- Volkswagen’s board oversaw fake emission testing,
- Enron’s and Nortel’s boards allowed fraudulent accounting practices,
- Bre-X’s board were duped into accepting bogus mining assays as legitimate.
- Most major US banks had board members who either were unaware of, or approved of, shady business practices that led to a world-wide recession.
- Facebook’s board members apparently paid no attention to Russian use of their services to illegally interfere in US elections, or to foresee that their policies have led to a loss of public and investor trust in their company.
- Apple’s board ousts founder Steve Jobs, hiring a new CEO who proceeds to bring the company to near bankruptcy.]
In Canada, the duties and powers of Trustees are dictated by Provincial legislation. The legislation in each province gives very different powers to School Boards and Trustees. Some Boards have very little ability to oversee whether policies are being implemented in ways that support students (eg. Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland/Labrador) while in other provinces the legislation gives meaningful powers of oversight to School Boards (eg. Ontario, Alberta, and PEI). In many cases, even when the legislation permits, Boards/Councils do not exercise their full authority, leaving the oversight of the implementation of policies to the Director/Superintendent.
- Links to provincial legislation related to public schools
- In some Provinces, the Ombudsman’s office is responsible for reviewing the activities of School Boards. In these jurisdictions, who should you call when you have a concern about a school or the School Board?
- ed•vocāte‘s submission to the Quebec panel studying the future of school board governance detailing the benefits and challenges related to elected school boards.
- Some people want to impose term limits on Trustees – here’s an analysis of incumbency of MP, Ontario MPPs, Toronto City Councillors, and Ontario Public School Board Trustees that shows that Trustees “turn-over” more quickly than other elected representatives.
- The Toronto District School Board is often held up as an example of why we shouldn’t have elected Trustees. Go here to see links to detailed independent assessments of how TDSB Trustees have worked to ensure accountability.