Leadership, Opinion, Promising Practices

Do School Boards Matter?

This blog post is part of our series on leadership and governance.

Over the last three decades, we have seen a trend toward the centralization of decision-making in public education and the erosion of power of democratically elected local school boards across Canada. In some jurisdictions, their continued existence has been called into question. My personal experience as a superintendent has demonstrated that school boards can be strong and effective institutions of leadership in public education and are central to community voice and the local democratic process.

For those of us who currently serve or have served as superintendents, we understand that governance issues are paramount to our work as education leaders. We collaborate with school trustees to meaningfully engage members of the community in understanding and supporting their school division/district’s mission, vision, values and priorities in support of the learning and well-being of all students. 

In my previous career as a superintendent in rural Manitoba, I served four different school boards and observed that even though the dynamics of these boards differed, the trustees were highly committed people who genuinely cared about the learning and well-being of our youth and the sustainability of our communities. For most trustees, they came into their role with little or no governance experience. When I assumed the superintendency, our board had over three hundred policies (which they did not know) and our meetings focused primarily on administrative and management issues. My role was to help them understand how they could be more effective in fulfilling their mandate and serve the best interests of the youth and communities that they represented through changes in their governance.  

Our work involved changing their governance philosophy to a more strategic focus with committees restructured to reflect where they needed to spend more of their time (i.e. policy, community connections, board development, fiduciary oversight). Our board, while skeptical at the outset, came to the understanding that they could be more effective in fulfilling their role through a change in their policy and practice. After two years of preliminary work with the board on effective governance, they made the decision to change to a strategic governance model underpinned by high-level policies. The policy manual was revised to include a total of twenty policies focused in three areas – their role as a board, goals and standards for the school division and the relationship between board and CEO. 

This change was transformational for our school board, which now focuses their time and efforts on planning, policy development and connecting with our communities. We worked collaboratively with our students, staff and communities to establish a new vision, mission, values, beliefs and priorities for our school division. To embrace student voice as a key strategy in our change efforts, we were the first board in Manitoba to designate a student representative. We engaged in open and transparent dialogue with our stakeholders and moved our school division forward with focus and deep commitment, placing us on the leading edge of initiatives that have now become commonplace in public education in Manitoba.

Over the past decade, we introduced many new programs and initiatives focused on student achievement, engagement and well-being. Some examples include the establishment of a band program, career and mentorship programming, early childhood programming, a fiber optic network and a focus on education for sustainable development. These new initiatives would not have been possible without the vision and commitment of trustees who were clearly supporting what their communities prioritized for the youth that we served in our school division. 

It should be mentioned that in Manitoba, school boards have retained the ability to levy local taxes to support public education. Without this authority, the programs and initiatives that I have cited above would not have been possible under provincial funding frameworks. It should also be noted that this did not mean that our trustees overlooked their fiduciary responsibilities. Our school division had one of the lowest mill rates in the province during this time frame. This required good planning, a commitment to priorities, aligning resources to priorities and collecting evidence to support positive outcomes for our students. 

Externally driven or imposed change runs a risk of resentment, passive resistance and cursory compliance. The public education system cannot succeed to its highest level through compliant behaviour. It also requires commitment that must be earned through respect for people’s viewpoints who are united to a compelling moral purpose. This involves an inclusive approach that invites staff, students and community into a mission-driven dialogue about the desired change, involves them in defining it, and supports it’s ongoing implementation. This approach takes longer and is far more complex, but is the only way to effect genuine, lasting change.

School boards constitute one of the oldest and most enduring forms of elected representation in Canada and in my opinion, continue to serve a vital role in sustaining the success of Canada’s education system. 

Meet the Expert(s)

Paul Cuthbert

Education Consultant, Cuthbert Consulting

Paul is an education consultant with 35 years of experience in education, most recently as a Superintendent/CEO in Manitoba.

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