By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
NEEPAWA, Man. — The management of schools in Nova Scotia will look a lot different this fall. At the end of January, the provincial government announced that they would be implementing 22 recommendations from a consultant’s report on educational administration, aimed at improving student outcomes. One of the recommendations that have drawn the most publicity is the elimination of the province’s seven English language school boards.
The change will see the elected, regional school boards replaced with an appointed provincial advisory council. The author of the report, Dr. Alvis Glaze, said that a “lack of clarity and coherence” have hampered the province’s education system from working as it should. Education minister Zach Churchill said that the present system doesn’t allow them to respond or adapt as quickly as they need to. According to the recommendation, the school boards will operate as education offices and retain their boundaries and names. Local input will come from an advisory council made up of parents, students, principals and community members. It’s interesting that cost savings weren’t given as one of the motivating factors behind the change and no job losses are expected, though staffing levels will ultimately fall through attrition.
My first reaction to the news was one shared by many Nova Scotians, concern over the loss of democratic rights. Hank Middleton, president of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, was quoted as saying that they will go from “educational democracy to educational bureaucracy.” In making the recommendation, Glaze argued that the last school board election saw a low voter turn out and 63 percent of the candidates acclaimed, offering little evidence of a strong democratic process.
In Manitoba, school divisions face similar challenges. Manitoba’s students are lagging other provinces when it comes to test scores. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, a test given to 15-year-old students, compared to those in other provinces, Manitoba students were second to last in both science and reading and third last in math. The two-hour test is administered every three years to students in 72 cities and countries. Clearly, changes are needed.
In Manitoba also, many seats are filled by acclamation. In the last election, in the Beautiful Plains School Division, there was an election in one of the two wards, Pine Creek School Division had an election in only one of their four wards and Turtle River School Division had two elections in its four wards. Rolling River School Division was unique in that it had elections in all five wards.
I’ve written my fair share of school division budget stories and I feel for trustees. They are faced with rising costs; for teachers’ salaries, building maintenance and educational essentials, such as technology. They are also faced with provincially mandated expenses that aren’t always accompanied by the necessary funding and in many cases, local divisions aren’t able to tailor provincial mandates to meet local needs. While the provincial government provides the bulk of their funding, the rest must be raised through local taxation, making trustees at times unpopular with their neighbours.
In Manitoba, a top-down approach hasn’t served students well and our international test scores show this. While the province should certainly set curriculum, oversee standardized tests and outline expected educational outcomes, I think it’s time to shift more decision making back to the local level. Local boards, with input from stakeholders, should be better able to decide the best way to use provincial funding to meet their students’ needs. In addition to improving student outcomes, more autonomy might also help attract more candidates and hopefully improve the democratic process.