School Board Follies: A Call for Accountability in Rainbow Country

October 27, 2014 - School boards are the lowest rung in municipal politics –and much that goes on escapes the attention of all but the most politically-engaged northern Ontarians.

Operating without much outside scrutiny, elected boards lapse into what is termed ‘corporate governance’ mode. Board chairs are schooled by chief superintendents to run a ‘tight ship,’ independently-minded trustees’ wings are clipped, and concerned parents are skillfully marginalized in local decision-making processes.

Every once in a while, a ‘creative disruption’ arises that attracts notice and threatens to disturb the comfortable status quo.

The Rainbow District School Board in Sudbury is now experiencing just that kind of disturbance. It was triggered by a wave of school closures from 2010 to 2012.  The dispute has not been pretty.

Some parents have been videotaping board meetings because they found the minutes and agendas less than revealing about the matters being discussed and the decisions being made. The Board felt it necessary to ban certain citizens from the Board office and recently squashed a move to lift a “no-trespass” order against opposing school board candidates. These events are so rare that the district has now attracted headlines and editorial criticism.

The local press and a band of citizens are now openly questioning the Board Chair’s leadership and what they have characterized as the RDSB’s inclination to go into hiding to avoid a public scrutiny that’s growing in intensity. Disgruntled parents and community activists are offering themselves for office, seeking to change the face of the elected school board.

The Sudbury school board controversy is simply the most graphic example of a wider education governance problem. Sparked by arbitrary school closure processes or closed-door decision making, school boards are now under fire in province after province across Canada. Calls are ringing out to abolish elected school boards and, in the Maritimes, successive ministers of education have actually ‘fired’ unruly boards.

Strict policy governance rules, introduced in stages since the mid-1990s, are eating away at responsible, accountable school trusteeship.  They also stand in sharp contrast to the Ontario Municipal Act giving “broad authority” to Councils and granting Councillors much broader powers defined “not narrowly and with undue strictness.”

A Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda.”

In another paper, Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team claim that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance.”

The prevailing ‘corporate’ mode of decision-making is completely out-of-step with current thinking on effective board governance.  “Shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making” advocated by Harvard University’s Richard Chait are now widely recognized as best governance practice in the North American public and non-profit sector.

Open, shared and generative leadership is exactly what the RDSB, and other boards throughout the north and across the country need to restore proper accountability and repair badly damaged public trust. That approach not only produces better decisions, but serves to attract higher calibre board members with something significant to contribute to public service.

One can only hope that the coming elections across the north will advance that process..

Authored by Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D. (OISE), a Senior Education Fellow at the Northern Policy Institute.

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