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.