Sunday, October 17, 2010

Secret #28: Vote and take your kids along for a lesson in democracy

It's never too early to learn about democracy
After all the campaigning, it comes time to choose the people who will guide our school district for the next 3 years.  Hopefully, the candidates have made reasonable efforts to inform you of their views on education issues through brochure, websites, etc.  You've followed the news coverage and talked to friends and neighbours about the election.  Now, it's time to vote.  Usually, the voting station is at one of the local schools, but if you're not sure where you vote, check the City's Election website to find out.

And if you have kids, don't miss this opportunity to take them along and explain what voting is all about- that this is how, in a democracy, we can peacefully decide who our leaders will be.  Anyone who is a student of history will understand how important the election process is.  Societies without access to options for peaceful change, often seek change through violent means.

As important as voting is, it shouldn't be the end of your involvement in civic affairs.  At the school board level, you can attend and make representations at School Board meetings.  You can get involved in your local school council.  You can let your provincial MLA know how important education is to you.

Good luck to all the candidates who came forward in this election willing to serve as Trustees!

Check out this great, short video encouraging young people to vote.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Secret #27: Serving as a School Trustee is more rewarding than serving as an MLA

The Legislature pays more but Trusteeship is more satisfying

Having served as both an MLA and a School Trustee, I can safely say that Trusteeship is, by far, the more rewarding form of public service.  Not in the financial sense, mind you, but in the sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment.

The school board governance model is a non-partisan one.  There's no government vs opposition as there is in the provincial and federal parliamentary models.  On the school board, all the trustees are part of "the government".  So, while we may disagree on issues from time to time, there's none of the rancour or vitriol commonly associated with "Question Period" in the parliamentary bodies.  There's no "Opposition" trying to make the "Government" look bad and vice versa.

While it's not uncommon that school board trustees later seek a run for a Legislature seat, it's also true that those who have served as MLAs  come forward later to serve as Trustees.  While MLAs have a whole host of policy areas to deal with, Trustees can focus strictly on providing the best possible education for our children and youth.  And in my books, there's nothing more important than that.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Secret #26: When you come to Board meetings, check your baggage at the door

It's a reality of the human condition that our previous life experiences shape us into the people we are today.

At the same time, when it comes to dealing with the school board's business, it's usually best if Trustees check all their unrelated baggage at the door and consider each item from this simple criteria: what action would be in the best interests of our students?

So, it doesn't really matter whether you're an active member of political party "X", or a strong adherent of religious faith "Y".  And your colleagues probably won't be all that interested in your old "war stories" anyway.

You'll be most effective as a trustee if you leave all that baggage behind, treat your associates with respect, and focus on doing what's best for our students going forward.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Secret #25: The Chair is the Board's spokesperson

The Board needs to speak with one voice

In general, the Board's spokesperson is the person who has been elected by his/her peers as the Chair.

It's important that there be a common understanding early on regarding Board communications and public statements to avoid difficulties later.  As issues are being considered, all points of view should be considered and welcomed.  But once a vote is taken, the entire Board is bound to accept the collective decision even if a particular Trustee(s) was not in agreement.  Unltimately, if the Board makes a decision that an individual Trustee cannot accept, then the best course for that Trustee would be to resign.

When new issues develop, the media will often contact Trustees for comment.  These should be handled with care.  Reporters love to report conflicts, and trustees would be wise not to make public comments that allow the Board to be portrayed as divided.   The reverse is also true- the Board Chair ought to be cautious about making comments on issues that the Board has not yet had an opportunity to discuss or take a position on.

For an example of the difficulties that can result when one trustee goes off on their own agenda, consider the case of the Calgary Catholic School Board and one of their trustees, Michael O'Malley.  The situation there got so bad, that the school board had to go to court to have Mr. O'Malley removed.

In the case of labour negotiations, the usual practice is to identify one of the Board's senior administrators as spokesperson.  And in larger boards, like Edmonton Public, an official such as the Director of Communications often handles media queries that are not of a political or governance nature.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Secret #24: Trustees need to be able to keep secrets

As much as many people might believe that all the business of public bodies, like school boards, should be done in public, that's not possible.

The Edmonton Public School Board, like all school boards, has regular closed sessions to deal with matters that require confidential consideration.  In our district, these meetings are known as Conference Committee meetings, and are simply closed meetings of the Board and it's senior officials.  An important piece of provincial legislation that guides our work in these areas is the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act( FOIPP).  Generally, the guideline for the business that is appropriate to be dealt with in closed meetings is: land, legal, or labour issues.  The "legal" category includes cases of employee or student discipline, and all matters where the Board needs to have the confidential advice of legal counsel and/or the Superintendent.   Once these matters have been decided, Trustees are obliged to keep the proceedings, and the decisions, confidential.  Violating these confidences will quickly lead to Board dysfunction, and other serious consequences. 

Election News

The Association for Responsive Trusteeship in Edmonton Schools( ARTES) has released a "report card" on each of the candidates standing for election to the Edmonton Public School Board.  To review the "report cards" yourself, click here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Secret #23: Keep in touch with the people who placed their trust in you

After an election, new trustees are often overwhelmed by a very steep learning curve.  There's orientation sessions, preparation for Board meetings, Results Review meetings with school Principals and central service administrators, a planning retreat, and on it goes.  And all of this would be on top of any regular job and family commitments that you're already trying to manage.

As busy as it gets, though, do make the effort to keep in touch with the people of your ward who have placed their trust in you.  Try to attend as many school events as you can.  There's usually some kind of meet the teacher function at the beginning of the school year, and a slew of events throughout the year, from Read-In Week, to awards nights, to grads.  If you let your school communities know you're interested, you'll get plenty of invitations.

And make use of the new technologies- host a website or a blog.  Use Facebook or Twitter.  Not only will these communication vehicles keep your constituents informed of initiatives that you and the Board are involved in, they help people feel that they made a good decision placing their trust in you at the ballot box and it's a great way to develop your support base for the next election.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Secret #22: Commit yourself to continuous learning

Trustees need to go to school, too

Just as we want our teachers to be continuously updating their skills as educators, trustees should also commit themselves to continuous learning in matters of governance.

There are many channels for this to occur.  Our provincial associations, the Alberta School Boards Association and the Public School Boards Association of Alberta, offer a variety of professional development sessions at their regular meetings.  There are also organizations that specialize in certain areas like the law( the Canadian Association for the Practical Study of Law in Education) or education sector negotiations( the North American Association of Educational Negotiators).

And, of course, there's always new books, magazine or newspaper articles, and online material to keep on top of.

If we want our students to become life long learners, we need to model that behavior ourselves.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Secret #21: School Councils play an important role

School Councils are an advisory group, made up mostly of parents, who work with the school Principal.  At regular meetings they may discuss a variety of issues ranging from the school's discipline policy to upcoming special events or seasonal activities.  Generally, the School Council is not involved in fundraising, although in practice it is often the same active parents who co-ordinate fundraising activities, just under a different name, i.e. School X Parent Association.

Some school jurisdictions have a district wide "Council of School Councils", although Edmonton Public does not.  I think our district would benefit if it provided some kind of mechanism for school councils to interact and share their ideas, concerns, and experiences.

There is a provincial association of school councils( click here to visit their website) and they've just recently released a discussion paper on the future of school councils that is worth reading.

New Trustees would be wise to contact the school council chairs in their respective wards with an open invitation to visit with them for a discussion of education issues at both the school and district level.  Once these relationships are established, they become an useful ongoing channel for communication and assistance in dealing with the various issues that emerge.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Secret #20:Reaching the tipping point

Malcolm Gladwell's book, "The Tipping Point" was an interesting read and his premise certainly applies to the work of school boards.  He argues that it takes a critical mass to effect change and that sometimes it only takes a little more effort or change in the environment to support a new direction or action.

The Edmonton Public School Board's recent debates around the question of student health and whether the board had a responsibility to offer healthier food and beverage options for students and eliminate the unhealthy( high sugar, high fat, high salt) options is a case in point.

EPSB Trustee Dave Colburn has been a leader in this policy area and had brought his anti junk food initiative forward a couple of years ago.  Initially, most trustees didn't see the need for this action, and some even questioned what constituted "junk" food.  When the vote was called, the motion was defeated.   As a result, the Board faced considerable negative reaction from the community and so, the following year, when Trustee Colburn brought forward the initiative again, it passed with a strong majority.

It's my sense that the new Board that will be elected on October 18th is one that will reflect the community's "tipping point" on the issue of school closures.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Secret #19: Don't try to have meetings by e-mail

E-mail is a great tool for some purposes- sharing logistical details of meetings, informing people of emergent situations, etc.  And trustees, like most people these days in leadership positions, have Blackberrys.

But it's lousy as a means to debate issues, and it's no substitute for the face to face dicussions that take place at meetings.

Keep it mind as well that e-mail is not a secure communications channel.  My rule of thumb has always been not to say anything through e-mail that I wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper.

Over the years, some of our employees have said things through e-mail that helped them become former employees.

And remember that the school district's guidelines for acceptable use of technology, including e-mail, applies to Trustees just as much as it does to staff.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Secret #18: Maintain an ongoing dialogue with your MLAs and City Councillors

Hold regular meetings with the other levels of government

An important part of a school board's work is to liaise with their counterparts in the Provincial and City governments.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but keep in mind that these folks all have demanding schedules and no one likes to go to yet one more meeting unless it is likely to be productive and lead to something of consequence.

When the Edmonton Public School Board closed 5 schools this year, with the prospect of more closures on the horizon, there seemed to be the critical mass necessary to prompt the 3 levels of government to come together recently and talk about what alternatives there may be to closures.  While schools are the primary responsibility of school boards, everyone knows that the local school is often the heart of a neighbourhood and often hosts a variety of other services and activities from sports to day care to community meetings.  A school closure affects more than just students.

In addition to these larger meetings with all the elected officials, the School Board Chair will often be in contact with the Mayor and the Minister of Education.  Individual trustees will often meet with the MLA(s) and City Councillor(s) whose districts overlap to keep each other informed about emerging issues.

These are important relationships that need to be nurtured in order to ensure maximum co-operative effort on behalf of our common constituents.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Secret #17: Learn the lingo

Educational lingo can be confusing but every line of work has it's own language and you'll need to become fluent in school boardese.

Here's a few items that may not be in your daily vocabulary now but will be soon if you're on the School Board:
  •  we don't have problems, we have challenges
  •  we don't refer to secretaries anymore, they're administrative assistants
  •  the people who keep our buildings clean are not janitors, they're custodial staff.  In one bargaining meeting I was at with the custodial staff, a CUPE rep was harshly reprimanded by the Local President for using the j word.
  • ASBA- the Alberta School Boards Association
  • PSBAA- the Public School Boards Association
  • CSBA- the Canadian School Boards Association
  • NSBA- the National School Boards Association( in the U.S.)
  • ACOL- Alberta Commission on Learning, which recommended( among other things) maximum class sizes that school districts are expected to adhere to
  • ATA- the Alberta Teachers Association, either provincial or local
  • Metro Boards- the 4 school boards in Edmonton and Calgary( 2 public and 2 Catholic), which together educate over half the students in Alberta
  • AISI- Alberta Initiative for School Improvement
  • ASEBP- Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan, a province wide health and welfare trust for Alberta's basic education sector employees, jointly sponsored by ASBA and ATA
  • CEU- Credit Enrollment Unit, the mechanism for funding high schools
  • CUPE 474 - the district's custodial staff union
  • CUPE 784-  the district's maintenance staff union
  • CUPE 3550- the district's support staff union
  • FNMI- First Nations, Metis, Inuit
  • FOIP- Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act
  • GLA- Grade Level of Achievement
  • IPP- Individualized Program Plan
  • PATs- Provincial Achievement Tests
  • POM- Plant Operation and Maintenance, one of the provincial government's funding envelops
  • Unit Costs- in relation to our staff, this is an average dollar amount that is used for budgeting purposes.  For example, the current teacher unit cost( salary + benefits) is about $94,000.
And a whole lot more!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Secret #16: We need to do a better job communicating our value statement

What's the value of education?

I suspect that most of us would agree that education is priceless.

But we do live in a world with real dollar costs and I don't think school boards( or other public service bodies) do a particularly good job of informing parents and/or community members of the value of education in a way they can relate to.

For example, our school district's annual budget is now over $800 million.  That number is so large that there's no way the average person can comprehend it.  But what if we said to parents: the school board budget of about $800 million provides education for 80,000 students, or an average public investment in each child of $10,000 per year.  Now we're at a number that people can get their heads around.  In my discussions with parents, few have any idea of this per/student cost, since education is mostly "free" to them.  If we did explain it like that, I think there would be a lot less grumbling when people consider their tax obligations, and perhaps a bit more gratitude for the value of the public services they receive.

This is truly the miracle of public education: by pooling our collective resources( i.e. taxes) we can ensure a quality education for every child.

News Flash!

The Edmonton Public School Board website now has videos and more information for all the school board candidates.  Check them out by clicking here!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Secret #15: Be sure to participate in Read-In Week

Read-In Week provides an opportunity to talk about the importance of reading

Read-In Week( which starts today) is a great event each year that provides an opportunity for community leaders and members to visit our schools and talk to students about their work and why reading is such an important element for success in life.

Schools typically invite elected officials such as the local Trustee, City Councillor,  MLA or MP, as well as other persons who have important roles in the community such as police officers or media personalities.

When I visit classes, I usually have 2 or 3 books and have the students vote on which one I should read.  That gives me a good opportunity to explain that Trustees have to vote on a regular basis on the kinds of things that we should do as a school district.  I also bring the day's newspaper and explain how reading the daily newspaper( either in print or online) helps you be an informed citizen.

Read-In is a great win-win event.  Community leaders get an opportunity to see some of the excellent work that is taking place in our schools, and students get to hear an important re-enforcing message about the importance of reading from these same leaders.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Secret #14: Cherish our teachers

Governor General David Johnston and his wife Sharon at his swearing in ceremony

It was inspiring to hear our new Governor-General encourage Canadians to "cherish our teachers", as he was sworn in to his new role.

It is, after all, our classroom teachers who spend the most time with our children and have the greatest impact on their learning and ultimate success.  As a school board, Edmonton Public has a number of strategies in place to recognize our teachers, as well as our non teaching staff who carry out many important functions that support the work of teachers.  For example, we have a program called "An Act to Follow" where our outstanding staff members are recognized at Board meetings for their contributions and initiatives.  We also have long service award evenings to honour those employees who have given many years of loyal service in the education of our young people.  And we encourage the nomination of teachers for the provincial "Excellence in Teaching" awards, and other external recognition programs.

Trustees have many opportunities to speak at school or community events.  Never let these pass without taking advantage of the occasion to "cherish" our hard working teachers and other staff members.  And by all means take advantage of Word Teachers Day on Oct 5th to let our teachers know how much we value their contribution to our children's success.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Secret #13: The No Asshole Rule

After one particularly tense Board meeting, I decided to send my colleagues an e-mail( as perhaps a not so subtle message)  recommending a book I had recently read called, "The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't" by Robert Sutton, PhD, professor of management science at Stanford University.

You may be familiar with the Golden Rule- "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  The No Asshole Rule seems to be a response to a modern workplace environment populated with folks who either never learned the Golden Rule or seem to have forgotten it.  Over the years I've seen a considerable amount of bad behaviour at meetings: arriving late, walking out in a huff in the middle of a meeting, threats to involve lawyers, and more.  None of that was respectful, none of it helped us focus on the work we were there to do on behalf of students.  Fortunately, that was pretty much all behind the scenes and not played out in public.

The new Board will have to deal with a lot of contentious issues over the next 3 years and trustees will no doubt have many different points of view on the issues.  Once the votes are taken, the positions become the Board's positions and all trustees then have a duty to respect and go along with the majority decision.

There's less chance that new trustees will burn out after one term if everyone adopts either the Golden Rule or the No Asshole Rule.

If you're a member of the Edmonton Public Library, you can reserve Sutton's book through their website.  It's a bit on the crude side, but I still recommend it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Secret #12: The Superintendent is your employee, not your buddy

The Superintendent of Schools is the Board's key employee and, while you may well have a friendly relationship with him, never forget that he's there to carry out the Board's direction and that it's the trustees responsibility to ensure that that happens.  He's the Board's employee, not their buddy.  Trustees first responsibility is to the students of the district, and if you believe that the Superintendent has done something that goes against the interests of students, your fiduciary duty obliges you to speak up and take the necessary action.  Trustees should generally concentrate on setting the policy direction for the school district and leave administrative matters to the Superintendent and his staff.  It can sometimes be a delicate balance around the edges of policy and administration, and some superintendents have a more finely developed sense of political astuteness than others.  Good communication both ways is essential for a successful Board/Superintendent relationship.

As the 2004-2007 Board discovered, there can arise circumstances where the Superintendent loses the confidence of the Board.  In such cases, termination usually results.  Always unpleasant, but sometimes necessary.

To begin a productive relationship right off the bat, I'd suggest the new Board have a private meeting with the Superintendent that would include a discussion of each others expectations and a review of his employment contract.  The Board, as the Superintendent's employer, should be fully aware of it's provisions regarding remuneration, evaluation, expiry date, provisions for terminating the contract, etc.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Secret #11: It's nice when outsiders sing your praises

William Ouchi, Author of "Making Schools Work"

It's always nice when credible outside observers think you're doing things right.

In his book, "Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need", William Ouchi, Professor of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, is very complimentary to Edmonton Public Schools.

He admires the extensive programs of choice( including religious faith options) that our school board offers to parents.  He likes our decentralized, school based budgeting system where the majority of the financial decisions that affect students are made by the school Principal, usually in collaboration with his/her staff, and with the advice of parents.  And he loves our consistent focus on student achievement.  Many of these practices have been adapted by U.S. school jurisdictions.

Ouchi's book is definitely worth a read.  If you're an Edmonton Public Library member, you can reserve a copy through EPL's website.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Secret #10: Get used to lots of long meetings

As the kids would say, meetings "suck". 

Well they might, but they don't have to.  That really depends on the people at the meeting, and whether they feel they are getting things done.  An Edmonton Public School Board meeting usually starts at 6:00pm Tuesday evening with an expected finish time of 9:00pm.  However, the meetings frequently go well past 9:00pm.  And the thing is, the longer the meeting drags on, the antsier people get and the more difficult it becomes to give your focussed attention to the matters at hand.  This is one of the reasons the Board has implemented time limits for trustees and members of the public.  While fixed speaking times are not a perfect solution, people need to be encouraged to make their points consisely.  Lengthy speeches tend to irritate your colleagues rather than sway them.

Meetings, meetings, and more meetings.  It's where decisions get made and it's a big part of a Trustee's job.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Secret #9: You need to read the School Act

Education Minister Dave Hancock is planning to introduce a new School Act soon

The School Act is a key piece of legislation that governs the work of school boards and trustees need to be familiar with it's provisions.  Among other things it covers:

* student attendance: the law says students only need to attend school until they turn 16 (effectively, completion of junior high).  The Edmonton Public School Board passed a motion this spring in support of raising the compulsory schooling age to 18 (effectively, completion of high school)

* school councils and how they are to operate

* suspensions and expulsions of students

* school board meetings and procedures

* conflicts of interest

* employment of teachers and non-teaching personnel

* financial matters including the option school boards have to hold a plebiscite on a special school tax levy.  Our Board considered authorizing the holding of a plebiscite this year but decided against it, in part because it has never been successful in any other jurisdiction that has tried it.

In addition to the Act, you should be familiar with the associated regulations.  One that is of particular importance is the School Closure regulation, which outlines the minimum requirements school boards must meet when considering the closure of schools.

The time you spend studying the School Act, and its regulations, will be time well spent.  To view it now, click here.

News Flash!

Get a sense of the Public School Board candidates views by reading their answers to questions posed by the Alberta Teachers Association Local 37 by clicking here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Secret #8: You will get complaints from parents

While the majority of parents are very happy with the quality of the education their children receive in our schools, Trustees can count on getting complaints from parents.  It could be related to any number of issues: bullying at the school or on the playground, late buses, how discipline is handled, school fees, homework, student placements, etc, etc.

As a trustee it's best not to get personally involved in such complaints/disputes but rather to ensure that parents understand the procedures in place to deal with their concerns.  If it's a classroom matter, the first thing you want to ask is whether the parent has spoken with the teacher.  If that has been done but not resolved the matter, the next level is to discuss the situation with the principal.  Most issues will be resolved at this level, but if not, the next level of appeal is to the Superintendent of Schools.  He has a staff group known as Leadership Services, who can review particular cases and assist in coming to a satisfactory resolution.  This group is composed of senior administrators and has an excellent record for resolving disputes.

If the complaint(s) are due to an action of the Superintedent, then that would be a matter for the Trustees to address.

In the broader sense, complaints often serve the useful function of helping the school system adapt to better serve student needs.  An example of this would be complaints about bullying leading to anti-bullying programs of various kinds now being common in most schools.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Secret #7: Sometimes employees do bad things

Although the vast majority of the school district's employees are dedicated to doing the very best for the children in our care, occasionally there are individuals who engage in various types of misconduct and face disciplinary measures, up to and including termination of employment.

The school district has collective agreements with 4 staff groups and those agreements all have provisions for appeals of disciplinary action if the employee and his/her union believe them to be unfair.  In our district, the appeal hearing is called an "Interpretations Committee" and is composed of 2 representatives of the Board( usually trustees) and 2 representatives of the union.  This committee must come to a unanimous decision to change an administrative action.  Failing a unanimous decision, the union has the option of proceeding to arbitration, although this is not commonly done.

The misconduct cases I have been involved in reviewing included theft and fraud, but the most troubling are always the cases involving sexual misconduct with students.  Those latter cases are dealt with swiftly and firmly.

Sometimes the police become involved in these cases and they enter the public domain.  If that happens, trustees may be approached by the media or parents for comments on the matter, but must refrain from doing so, in order not to undermine the proper disciplinary and/or legal process.  The ASBA has provided an excellent guide in this respect that you can review by clicking here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Secret #6: Opening a new school will lift your spirits!

Kids love their bright new school!

After years of begging the provincial government to authorize schools for Edmonton's new neighbourhoods, we were finally delighted to open not 1 but 6 new schools this year!

A new school is such a joyous and hopeful occasion for a community.  It represents all of our hopes and dreams for the future.  For school trustees, these events are a highlight of our work and represent the culmination of much co-operative effort by many parties for the ultimate benefit of our children.  It's too bad that each school opening, that had an overflow audience, didn't make front page news.  I guess it's the just the nature of the news media beast that bad news gets more coverage than good news.

The new Board can look forward to opening 3 new schools in the fall of 2012.  By then, they may well need something to lift their spirits if they proceed with current plans to close another raft of older, low enrollment schools.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Secret #5: There's strength in numbers

Education Minister Dave Hancock chats with ASBA President Heather Welwood

A school board can magnify it's impact considerably by working together with other school boards across the province.  The Alberta School Boards Association(ASBA) is the body that makes province wide co-operation possible.  While city boards face some issues that rural boards don't, or while public school districts have some differences with Catholic school districts, overall the issues that face us are much more similar than not.  If school districts can present a united front to government, they are much more likely to be effective in their advocacy efforts.   In addition to to being a province wide voice for school boards, ASBA provides a variety of services to it's member boards.  For example, the comprehensive employee benefit plan known as the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan( ASEBP) is a partnership between the ASBA and the Alberta Teachers Association.  This unique partnership has allowed for the development of a benefit plan tailored to the needs of Alberta's basic education sector employees.  As an ASBA representative, I am now completing my last term as the Board Chair of ASEBP.

For the candidates who are elected on Ocober 18th, ASBA provides many opportunities for trustees to influence the direction of education in the province.  As a Metro Board( which is what the 4 school boards in Edmonton and Calgary are called) EPSB has one spot on the ASBA Board of Directors, a representative to the Zone( regional) meetings, and many opportuntities for involvement on a variety of committees with Government and other stakeholders.  ASBA's upcoming Fall General Meeting will provide an excellent opportunity to network with trustees from around the province and to establish working relationships with provincial officials.

Since the province has such a strong role in education, trustees would be wise to maximize the opportunities they have to work together with other school boards through ASBA.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Secret #4: The magic number is 5

During elections, trustee candidates often have particular issues that they talk about and want to see action on should they get elected.  Keep in mind, however, that in a non-partisan environment like the school board, you can never assume that your view is shared by the majority.  In fact, with a 9 member board, it takes 5 votes to make anything happen.   The upside of the non-partisan environment is that the vote is never pre-determined.  On any number of issues the votes can be 9-0 in favour, 9-0 against, or anything in between.   So expect that you will be on the winning side of some votes and on the losing side of others.  When you're on the losing side of a vote, it's best to accept the result and move on.  Maintaining a respectful attitude towards your colleagues, even when you have disagreements, will go a long way to maximizing your overall success at the Board table.   Keep it mind that trustees are seldom swayed by the passion of your speeches at a board meeting.  You'll get more support for your ideas if you take the time to have conversations with your colleagues in advance of a meeting and listen to any concerns they have or suggestions they offer in order to be able to bring something forward that will ultimately have majority support.

As an individual trustee you may have considerable influence, but no power.  Power to act comes from the majority will of the collective Board. So, remember: 1-4 votes=failure, 5+ votes=action.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Secret #3: Closing schools is one of the most painful things Trustees do

I've been through about 15 school closure processes during my time on the school board, and it's always an excruciating experience.  Although none of the closures were in my relatively newer ward of Mill Woods, I always struggled with the agony felt by parents, community members, and, of course, students.  If there's any upside to these episodes it's that they demonstrate clearly how much our communities value their neighbourhood school as an essential element in their quality of life.

The challenge for Trustees is, when does enrollment get so low that the quality of education becomes compromised?  One number that has been used as a guideline is 140 students for a K-6 school, or about 20 students per class.  Funding comes on a per student basis, and the fewer students there are, the more you end up with split grades, and reduced resources for everything from computers, library materials, building maintenence, etc.  In some cases, Edmonton Public has been able to offer specialized or alternative programs to boost enrollment at a particular school in order to keep it financially viable.  In other cases, schools lease out excess space to community groups like daycares, and this helps offset utility and maitenence costs.

The current "sector reviews", if the new Board continues along this path, will likely end with more school consolidations and closures.   With other closures, the school buildings have been repurposed for a new educational or community service use.  For example, North Edmonton School was closed a few years ago and has now been re-opened as a continuing care facility.  In light of our society's changing demographic make-up, this makes a lot of sense.

But make no mistake, when you close a neibourhood school, the local community will be very upset.  In the current election, that angst is most likely to be manifest in the race for Ward G, where 2 schools were closed this year.  At least we're not as bad off as some school districts like Kansas City, where the situation was so dire, they closed 26( or almost half) of their schools this year!!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Secret #2: We should have fewer trustees but pay them more

Why does the Edmonton Public School Board have 9 Trustees?  The Calgary Public School Board, the largest in the province, seems to discharge it's governance responsibilities quite adequately with 7 members.  So does the Edmonton Catholic School Board.  Over the past many years there has some discussion and a few votes to reduce the number of trustees, but in the end, the status quo prevailed.  In all the time I've been on the Board, I never heard any compelling reason for a 9 member board, and perhaps this could be another issue for the new Board( which will be made up of a majority of new faces) to take a hard look at.

At the same time, I would argue, we should pay them more.  Currently, EPSB Trustees are paid about $32,000/yr ( more for the leadership positions).  Compare this to the Calgary Public School Board where the average trustee pay is $46,618, or the Edmonton Catholic Board with an average trustee pay of $53,000/year.  The trustee role is often thought of as a part-time responsibility with part-time remuneration.  The problem is that the time commitments are often spread out at different times and days making it very tough to juggle if you have another "regular" job.  If you're interested in seeing how much trustees, superintendents, or secretary-treasurers earn, this is all public information.  Just click here to be taken to the Alberta Education site that has the audited financial statements for every school jurisdiction in the province for the last 3 years.  Each financial statement includes a page itemizing the remuneration, benefits, allowances, and expenses paid to each trustee as well as the superintendent and secretary-treasurer.

I realize that this may be a sensitive issue for candidates and voters.  I also realize that most candidates aren't in it for the money.  At the same time, I think it's in everyone's interest that the pay arrangements are such that they attract top quality people for this important role.  Relatively lower pay is, in part, why many school board candidates are elected by acclamation.  I spoke with one person recently who had been planning to run for the school board for the past few years, but when she crunched the numbers, she didn't think it would be fair financially to her family- so she's taken a pass on this election.  And the voters have one less choice to consider.

Your thoughts?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Secret #1: Why don't school board candidates have to disclose their campaign contributions?

One of the common provisions( or "best practices", as educators might say) in election campaigns, is to require candidates for public office to file a disclosure statement of their campaign contributions.  This is intended to enhance public confidence in our elected officials through a greater degree of transparency and accountability.  At the federal, provincial, and municipal levels of government, this is now standard practice.  At the school board level, generally, it's not.  The Calgary School Boards have shown leadership in this area and do have disclosure policies on the books, but unfortunately, the Edmonton Public School Board has never shown any interest in adopting this practice.  In past elections, some EPSB candidates have received financial and in-kind support from one of the school board's unions.  Shouldn't voters have an opportunity to know this and determine whether it might be a consideration, one way or the other, in their voting decision?  The new Board should address this deficiency before the next election.  In the meantime, I would challenge the current trustee candidates to set an example and voluntarily commit to filing a financial disclosure statement for their campaign.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Out with the old, in with the new on October 18th!

Hi and welcome to my blog for the Edmonton Public School Board election!

Since education is so critically important to our future, I have created this forum for a discussion of many of the issues and challenges that will face our new Board of Trustees as they guide our school district over the next 3 years.

By 9:00am for each day of the election, I will be posting a "secret", that is, one of my perspectives on a particular aspect of school board governance as I experienced it and I invite you to add your thoughts to the discussion.

There are a bunch of issues in the pot right now and I intend to touch on many of them during the coming month: education funding, school consolidations and closures, provincial initiatives to "transform" education, transportation, technology, relationships with stakeholders, and the list goes on.

The new trustees will have a steep learning curve and it is my hope that this blog will be a useful place for candidates and community members to share their views about how we might make a good school district even better.