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.

video

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.