ELECTION 2014: Columnist Jennifer Smith says a slick pitchman is needed for the board of education

City of Kelowna: Are school boards irrelevant? Not in Canada, research shows

  • Oct. 31, 2014 6:00 p.m.

Jennifer Smith

The school board is kind of a bargain for $250,000.

It might sound like a lot of out-of-pocket expense for the governance of a crew you hear little about, but when one considers they manage a $220 million budget, making the seven trustees worth 0.1 per cent of the cost to run local schools, to me their input reads: Take a little, give a lot.

Originally when I set out to write this column, crunch a few numbers, compare how many people are voting for trustee to city councillor and decide whether the board is, in fact, relevant to the electorate, I was leaning the other way. The board of education seemed a bit useless, given the fact they have no control over teachers’ contracts—the dominant education issue, if measured by volume, not logic.

I was wrong, but for good reason.

The pie-in-the-sky line on any elected representative is that he or she represents the people, the community, and this is where arguments to do away with trustees or individual school boards begin. Look at the vote breakdown and it’s hard to buy the representation line.

On average, the trustees pull down about a third of the votes cast for city councillors in the Central Okanagan. Only about a third of us even bother to vote for city councillors, so it’s absolutely absurd to argue any of these people reflect the electorate they represent. In Kelowna, the highest number of votes a school trustee could muster last round was 10,000. There are 120,000 people here (B.C. Stats, 2013).

Teresa Rezansoff, the trustee who currently heads the B.C. Trustees’ Association, is big on this representation argument.

“These are the people you can run into in the grocery store,” she told me. I don’t think I’ve run into a single politician buying eggs, so while it makes sense in her hometown of Grand Forks, not so in a larger city.

When she started talking about public engagement, their relevance made more sense. Falling enrollment numbers and funding constraints had her district facing school closures, so her board threw open the doors and took their public representation mandate to the people, asking for input. That public consultation generated a suggestion to try a four-day school week. They did and saved money.

Were this quagmire left to an accountant or a superintendent to deal with, someone whose paycheque comes from the province and who arguably would be subject to more pressure to conform as their living wage is based on their work, a school might have closed and a segment of the community lost.

Ask anyone in real estate, after all, neighbourhoods do tend to form around good schools.

School trustees represent the community not by reflecting the community, but by forcing active engagement, often before issues come to a head. And if your child is suspended over a serious issue, the trustee sits in on the suspension committee, representing the interests of the electorate.

What does this mean? If you happen to be blessed with one of those little blighters who really puts the principals and directors of instruction through their paces, you’ve got at least one neutral party, who doesn’t have to actually work with your kid, listening to the argument for why the school system should still be forced to educate this person.

Trustees are also assigned schools to liaise with parent advisory councils and school parent councils, principals and teachers, so they do know the issues.

Ask the trustees’ association what they do and they’ll talk about vision, policy and planning—which is true.

From a larger vision perspective, the boards are currently tasked with setting a direction so places like Powell River, a decidedly outdoor-oriented Coastal community, has an outdoor and ecological learning centre. Kelowna, which services the Northern appetite for trained trades workers, has strings of programs kids can go into before graduation to begin trades training. And Richmond focuses on English as an additional language enrichment.

But much of their real value is in their ability to advocate, without having a direct financial stake in the outcome—ie. a paycheque. An $18,000 salary is a sideline by any standard and, whether they articulate it well or demonstrate their involvement enough publicly, we do get a lot of bang for our buck.

Last year, a Pan-Canadian Study of School District Governance was published by three academics in collaboration with the Canadian School Boards Association. It found school boards increasingly suffer from bad press and have had their budgets and responsibilities severely curtailed by ministries of education, making their democratic role seem less relevant.

Rather than wag a finger at the higher level of government or the media, however, it pointed out conflict between levels of government is healthy in a democracy and put the onus back on school districts, and their elected representatives, to demonstrate how relevant boards of education truly are to the school system and society in general.

It recommended finding ways to get in front of the general public on a routine basis and recruit younger people into those trustee positions.

It recommended more clearly defining the trustee role for the general public and routinely publicizing it for the average voter so he or she knows why to vote—genius!

It recommended formalizing research alliances and adding more professional development to the trustee docket, and finding ways to engage the public in a dialogue about what’s needed in education.

In other words, modernize and demonstrate that you are relevant and the people will vote. Makes sense to me. I recommend listening to the research, a decidedly educated approach.

Twitter: @jaswrites

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