The Quebec government is making a major mistake by planning to eliminate elected School Board Trustees. The Ontario government has asked the Hall panel looking into the governance of the Toronto District School Board to consider the same possible action.
In the spring when Quebec held consultations into this plan, I submitted the following analysis of the value elected Trustees bring to schools and students.
note: in Quebec it is Commissioners and Councils, in Ontario it is Trustees and Boards
Dear Panel members
I am convinced that eliminating elected Commissioners in Quebec would cause serious harm to students, parents, and school board staff, and thus to the economic and social fabric of Quebec. I base this belief on my experience in the private sector, as a TDSB Trustee, and as a member of the Ontario Public School Boards Association has convinced me
I was a Trustee of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) from 2003 to 2014 including being Chair of the TDSB Governance committee seven years ago when then Minister of Education Wynne was considering major changes to the functioning of TDSB and other school Boards. From 2004 to 2014 I served as a Vice-President of the Ontario Public School Boards Association and was recently honoured by OPSBA with the 2014 Harry Paikin award for outstanding service as a Public School Trustee. I am now retired having spent my working life as a business owner and a management consultant.
Below I’ve outlined my thoughts on the strengths of electing Commissioners as well as the strengths of appointing Commissioners or having Ministry staff oversee school boards.
Executive Director, EdVocate.ca
Former TDSB Trustee (2003 – 2014)
Value of elected Commissioners compared to appointed Commissioners or Ministry staff overseeing schools
- Connection with the community of parents (Education Act 176.1.1) – In order to win election a Commissioner must demonstrate to the community that he/she is “of” the community, often by being an active parent in one of the local schools but at the very least by actively campaigning in the schools and the community. The candidate almost always lives in the community. This makes it possible for the Commissioner to bring an insightful and nuanced understanding of what the community needs from its local schools. Section 176.1.1 of the Quebec Education Act requires each Commissioner to:
- [inform] the council of the needs and expectations of the population of their electoral division or their sector, as part of their contribution to defining the school board’s directions and priorities
It is unlikely that an appointed Commissioner or Ministry staff will have the knowledge to fulfill this duty. Much as we expect teachers to provide differentiated instruction to individual students, the Council needs to set policies that are flexible enough to allow each school to provide differentiated support for their local community.
- Monitoring & Evaluating policy implementation (176.1.2 & 176.1.3) – Section 176.1 of the Quebec Education Act makes it clear that the Commissioners are required to
- (2) [see] to the relevance and quality of the educational services offered by the school board;
- (3) [make] sure that the school board’s human, material and financial resources are managed effectively and efficiently;
The Ontario Education Act places similar duties on School Board Trustees. It has been my experience that the intimate connection between community and Trustee is critically important to fulfilling these duties. I do not believe that appointed Commissioners or Ministry staff could effectively carry out these duties. Rather than have direct knowledge of the situation at schools, they will have to rely on reports from board staff. These reports will only rarely point out staff failings in implementing the Council’s policies. Without first-hand information from parents and school staff I would not have been able to fulfill 176.1.2 and 176.1.3. I have reason to believe that most of my colleagues across Ontario are of the same opinion.
- Connection of parents and the community with Commissioners (Education Act 176.1) – Parents and other community members don’t hesitate to contact their elected Commissioners. By standing for election, the candidate declares that he/she will be both accessible and responsive. Voters often explicitly express this familiarity and expectation in a way that they would never do with an appointed Council member or Ministry staff whom they have no knowledge of or connection with. Without elected Commissioners, vital information on how policies are actually being implemented will be lost and none of the duties placed on a Commissioner by 176.1 can be properly carried out.
- Inspiring confidence in public schools – While I can find no reference to this in the Quebec Education Act, I have no doubt that inspiring public confidence in your schools is an unspoken core goal of any government. Elected Commissioners have had mixed success in achieving this goal, but on balance I am convinced that elected Commissioners will be more successful than appointed Commissioners or Ministry staff. In my experience, a Trustee is able to calm a frustrated or upset parent with a concern in a way that non-elected Commissioners would not be able to do. Parents view elected officials as being on their side, allowing the Trustee or Commissioner to act as an effective mediator between the parent and school (or board) staff. Trustees and Commissioners can also explain the reasons behind a policy that a parent disagrees with. Because of this trust, the parent will often understand and accept what seemed at first to be a policy with no merit.
- Counter-balancing Provincial policy – This is an important, but politically contentious, role of a Commissioner. No Minister of Education wants to face opposition for a policy. No Ministry staff member likes to have their directives challenged. But by their very nature, province-wide polices and directives overlook important differences between the needs of students in different regions. Furthermore, provincial education policies must be set in the context of broader provincial concerns which may reduce the quality of support for students. Appointed Commissioners or Ministry staff are unlikely to challenge misguided Ministry initiatives. Elected Commissioners will take this stance as needed, very often leading to improvements in these Ministry initiatives. More productively, the Ministry can ask elected Commissioners and Councils for comment on draft initiatives. It has been my experience that the Ontario Ministry of Education has benefitted greatly from this sort of feedback and insight.
- Incubators for ideas – A great many Ontario province-wide initiatives started with an idea from a single elected Trustee, often spurred by contact with a parent, staff, or student. For example, Ontario’s return-to-learn concussion policy originated from a Trustee being told of the lack of support given to help students with traumatic brain injuries get ready to learn again. Teachers and Principals were forcing students to return to class and take tests before the student’s brain had sufficiently healed, causing further brain injury. Following the “return-to-learn” policy at one board, the Ministry of Education developed a very similar policy direction for the whole province.
- Institutional memory – One of the most valuable components of any successful organization is that of institutional memory. But in many boards, staff stay at senior levels for a decade or less. This places the burden of institutional memory on the shoulders of the Commissioners. Appointed Commissioners or those drawn from Ministry staff would have tenures even shorter than those of board staff at senior levels. Elected Commissioners with long tenure provide a historical perspective that a board is unlikely to achieve in any other way.
Problems with the current way of electing Trustees & Commissioners
I have no illusions that school boards Councils made up of elected Commissioners are imperfect; like every corporate Board or public governing body they have flaws. I have seen serious problems at TDSB and other Ontario Boards, many of which have been reported in the press. But I have also seen comparable problems at private sector organizations throughout my business career.
- Distortion of election results due to low turnout occurs at every levels – My experience in Ontario is similar to that in Quebec; there is a very small turnout of voters who actually know or care about the candidates. In Ontario, where our Trustee elections are part of the municipal elections, the voting percentage is inflated. Most voters come out to vote for Mayor and then fill in their ballot for Councillor and Trustee with little to no fore-thought or knowledge or interest. My guess is that the real “non-random” turnout for Trustee elections is between 10% and 15%.
Though this number is low, it is probably about the same as the knowledgeable votes cast for Ontario municipal Councillors. And it is a common complaint of the “first-past-the-post” electoral system that federal and provincial majority governments often are elected with the support of 25% of registered voter. It may be that turnout could be increased by requiring Commissioner candidates to have 100 – 200 nominators in order for their name to be on the ballot. This would also help ensure that the candidates have a greater involvement in the community.
- Balance of Skills on a Council – This is perhaps the greatest advantage of an appointed Council over an elected one. The Minister could ensure that all the areas of expertise beneficial to the Council would be represented. Elected Councils rarely have a mix of members with legal, financial, system evaluation, human resources, facilities management, policy development, and other skills important for providing proper oversight of a complex organization. (On the other side appointed Commissioners will not have the community connections that are also important for a school board to inspire public confidence.)
- Cohesiveness of the Commissioners – Conflict within elected Councils is seen by some as dysfunction. By appointing Commissioners a Minister could guarantee that the Council work together collegially. This would add a degree of stability compared to an elected Council. However there is a down-side to this sort of cohesion – the prevalence of “group-think” that reduces the range of opinion and perspective on the Council. In my experience, appointed boards are all too often rubber-stamps for management proposals. They neither challenge management initiatives nor push the organization to adopt new strategic directions needed to adapt to changing conditions. It is common for elected Commissioners to ask the type of probing questions that exposes problems with the management of schools and resources by board staff.
- Not a training ground for aspiring politicians – Appointing Commissioners would avoid a common complaint about elected Trustees in Ontario – that too many Trustees are there not to serve students, but to build skills, profile, and credibility to run for another office. To my mind this is a serious problem. At any time about one-third of TDSB Trustees are aspiring career politicians). About a dozen Toronto City Councillors are former Trustees, as are several Ontario Cabinet Ministers and Premier Wynne. The other side of this issue is that many (most?) appointed Commissioners would use the position as a way to add to their resume, rather than being primarily interested in ensuring that schools successfully support student achievement and well-being.
The major problems that never get discussed
- Micro-management and political interference by the provincial government and Ministry of Education staff – It is common for education issues to decide the outcome of an election:
- parents are very protective of their children,
- a significant portion of voters work in schools,
- education sector unions can mobilize many volunteers and make significant campaign donations, and
- the general public has an emotional and practical interest in public schools.
No Premier or Minister of Education likes it when an education issue is raised during Question Period by an opposition member, or is given major play in the media.
As a result, when it suites their purposes most governments can’t resist taking charge of an issue that is best left to school boards. Many of these issues involve one board or one school in the province, but if it gets media attention the government almost always re-acts and over-reacts. These provincial interventions undermine public trust in their local Council and Commissioners, make it impossible for boards to make long-term plans, and are usually taken with little information and even less thought to the impact of the direction on actual students in actual schools throughout the province.
If the Quebec government is truly serious about improving the quality of school board Councils and Commissioners, the most useful step should be a commitment to leave boards to manage their own affairs. This would require a simple decision by the cabinet, something that is completely within their control. While no other action would come close to the impact on student achievement and well-being, it saddens me to believe that the political interests of MLAs will always override the interests of students. We should never play politics with the future of our children, but that is what governments do.
- Governments use school boards as a shield for unpopular decisions taken by the Ministry – This political interference with school boards is the flip side of the micro-management of issues. When a government feels the need to make an unpopular decision, it almost always frames it in a way that leads the public believes that the decision comes from the school board Council. For example:
- When the government imposes budget constraint (budget cuts) on school boards, the Council is left with the decision of which programs are to suffer and the Ministry directs any complaints to the Council, even though the Council is only cutting programs because the Province requires it to do so.
- Similarly when the Ministry compels a Council to close schools and sell land, and then when there are community complaints, the Province denies that they have had any involvement in the school closing or land sale.
This denial by the Ministry of any involvement demoralizes Commissioners and undermines the public confidence in the Council. When Commissioners try to explain the bind that they are in, constituents dismiss these as passing-the-buck.