The recent decision by the provincial government to introduce sweeping changes to the education system has generated strong opinions.
On January 24, the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, Zack Churchill, announced the province will adopt the recommendations outlined in a report that was released the previous day by education consultant Dr. Avis Glaze.
The province hired Dr. Glaze in October to conduct a review of how Nova Scotia’s public schools are administered. Her report stated that the department and the province’s eight individual school boards often function as nine disconnected bodies, and recommended a more unified approach.
In accordance with the recommendations, the province will dissolve its seven elected English language school boards, including the Strait regional school board (SRSB) and establish one provincial advisory council. The structure of the Conseil scolaire acadien provinicial (CSAP) board will not change.
During the announcement, Churchill pointed out that student achievement in the province is below the national average, and an achievement gap exists among some minority groups.
Any money saved by the dissolution of the boards will be put back in the classroom, however, the minister said the focus is more on systemic changes than financial savings, and he has no plans to lay-off staff at central board offices.
The province also plans to remove principals and vice-principals from the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union (NSTU), a change that will affect 40 staff within the SRSB. Other changes include strengthening the role of superintendents who will report directly to the deputy minister, and moving teacher support specialists out of regional education offices and into classrooms four days per week.
SRSB Chair Jamie Samson told The Reporter that although the board supports many of the recommendations put forward in Dr. Glaze’s report, he is disappointed with the decision to dissolve school boards, pointing out they are the “local voice.”
The minister said the government plans to enhance the role of school advisory councils (SACs) to give teachers, parents, and community members at each school more of a voice in decision-making at the local level. While he agrees with asking parents to take a role in the education of their children, the SRSB chair said there will be challenges trying to coordinate this at a provincial level.
That is precisely where this plan will succeed or fail. If the SACs are given the adequate guidance and resources from the government in making decisions about individual schools, it can succeed, but without these tools, there is little chance for success.
The minister was unable to give a precise timeline on the planned changes, noting new legislation will be required in order to move forward. However, Churchill said the department’s goal is to have the new structure in place by the start of the next school year. Samson says the SRSB will carry on until they receive further notice.
It was disappointing to hear that the SRSB will be dissolved, but not surprising.
Not long after the board was awkwardly established from four district boards, it was then in charge of the unpopular task of closing schools around the four counties.
Near the conclusion of this divisive review process, the board was then embroiled in a spending scandal involving senior board management which badly damaged public trust in the board.
Even after the SRSB was able to right the ship, public engagement remained at unacceptable levels, with small numbers of voters showing up to elect board members and seats being filled by acclamation.
Then the board found itself in another mess as it devolved into dysfunction over the inappropriate behaviour of a board member, so much so that the province had to appoint Ken Meech to oversee the board.
This made an already deteriorating situation worse, as fewer voters bothered to participate in school board elections, and more seats went uncontested.
In the time since, the only flickers of engagement arise when groups of angry parents and students protest the possible closure of a school. When those issues are put to bed, these brief windows of public interest quickly close.
Attendance at school board is showing. Aside from times when schools are under review, the gallery remains largely empty, despite the thousands of parents, teachers and staff, hundreds of schools, and important issues discussed by the SRSB.
And during meetings, the items which arouse the most discussion surround procedure, for instance the lengthy debate over meeting attendance via technology; hardly the type of debate to rouse the public from its complacency.
That brings up the other problem. Aside from decisions over school buildings, busing, human resources, and other day-to-day matters, significant issues of programs and policy are largely dealt with at the bureaucratic level. Boards offer input and provide suggestions, but even with an elected local school board, major decisions are still being made within the Department of Education.
Those factors aside, had voters and candidates participated during elections, had people showed up to meetings, and had the public become engaged other than during school reviews, the school boards might have been saved.
Considering the government made this decision only 24 hours after the report was made public, a strong case can be made that it had already made up its mind, but demonstrated apathy provided them with the justification to pull the trigger.