I’m amazed by the time that has already elapsed since the provincial Education Minister announced that his government had accepted the recommendation of an independent consultant – in a report filed only 24 hours earlier – to dissolve Nova Scotia’s current English-language school board system.
That was three weeks ago. Three quiet, indifferent, protest-free, outrage-absent weeks ago.
Now, to put this in perspective, wind the clock back to last winter, when the provincial Liberal administration and the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union (NSTU) were engaged in a knock-down, drag-out, bare-knuckle brawl over the government’s ham-fisted attempt to unilaterally legislate a new contract for its teachers.
Remember the thousands of NSTU members – and supporters – descending on Province House to wave picket signs and chant slogans? Remember work-to-rule? Remember the disrupted bus schedules, up-ended extracurricular activities and general chaos that accompanied work-to-rule?
We all cared about education then. We were all going to make a difference then. We were going to show those guys in Halifax a thing or two about our local education priorities.
And then, last spring, we re-elected “those guys in Halifax” to another majority government. Because, evidently, as an electorate, we’ve got the attention span of a fruit fly, or – in the case of roughly 47 per cent of us – we found something better to do than voting.
Months later, the Liberals moved forward on one of their election promises, hiring Dr. Avis Glaze to review the 22-year-old regional school board system. She only got three months to do that review, but apparently that was enough, especially since her final report seemed to tell the Education Department and the government in general exactly what it wanted to hear.
Apart from the expected dismay from the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, disappointment from Strait regional school board (SRSB) chair Jamie Samson, and the bizarre “Divide and Distract” campaign launched by the NSTU and the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union (NSGEU), the silence has been deafening.
People aren’t taking to the streets. The picket signs are lying idle. My Facebook and Twitter feeds aren’t filling up with angry posts. We seem to have collectively shrugged and moved on to other things. (Hey, cool! The Olympics are on!)
It’s all a stark contrast to the events of last year, to say nothing of the packed halls and heated public meetings that accompanied pretty much any attempt to close or consolidate schools since the SRSB and its six sister boards were officially formed 22 years ago.
I’ve seen it all during that time – school auditoriums filled with people from four different counties loudly demanding the resignation of SRSB members and administrators, accusations of impropriety and even criminal activity (which actually wound up being true in the 2001 spending scandal that temporarily saw control of the SRSB handed over to a provincially-appointed mediator), sit-ins, walk-outs, angry chants, people lining up with picket signs along busy highways in the dead of winter.
I’m not seeing any of that now. The squeaky wheels that demanded action over bricks and mortar, program delivery and even the transferring of popular principals to other schools have been decidedly less squeaky when it comes to local governance of our school system.
None of this should surprise you. I’ve covered SRSB meetings in three different decades, and empty public galleries tended to be the exception rather than the rule. (Apart from potential school closures, the only things that tended to bring people out – and rightly so – were celebrations for Mi’kmaq History Month or African Heritage Month.)
Along with its recommendation to replace the English-language school boards with a provincial advisory council, Glaze’s report also painted a picture of a disengaged electorate that has barely participated in board elections, as either voters or candidates. Eight of the 10 Strait board districts were filled by acclamation in the fall of 2016, repeating a familiar pattern from the past two decades. But we’re not alone – Glaze’s report confirms that 61 of the 97 school board seats available province-wide weren’t contested last time around. Low voter turnout is also an issue at this level; even in the rare contested seats, I’ve seen SRSB members elected with as few as 20 per cent of their constituents casting their ballots.
Aside from that, however, I genuinely feel bad for these people and for the board’s administrative staff, who have all struck me as genuinely interested and concerned about the education of our next generation of leaders. I think the organizational structure of the boards themselves may have frustrated – and, occasionally, outright failed – these people, and that structure was worth putting under review.
Today, three weeks after the double-barreled school board bombshell, I suspect more than one of them is wondering whatever happened to the public’s outrage – and I’m wondering that myself.