‘Raise the Bar’ Lowers the Boom on NS School Boards

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Education consultant Avis Glaze is clearly a quick study: hired in October 2017, she was given until the end of December to conduct an administrative review of the Nova Scotia education system.

Avis Glaze. (Source: CBC)

She crammed 91 in-person meetings (with individuals or groups) into 19 business days (I’m assuming she didn’t work weekends), between October 17 and November 10 — that’s an average of five meetings per day.

She also digested 1,500 responses to an online survey and distilled everything into Raise the Bar: A Coherent and Responsive Education Administration System for Nova Scotia, which was released on Tuesday.

The report makes 22 recommendations to improve our system from an administrative point of view and don’t worry, I am not going to attempt an evaluation of her evaluation. I know my limitations.

I will note, however, that the recommendation that is roiling the province this morning — the one to abolish seven of the province’s eight elected school boards (the province-wide French board alone would be spared) is foreshadowed at the beginning of the report in a way that would make a high school English teacher’s eyes roll.

It takes the form of a 10-point list of “Milestones and key points in governance and administration of the system” that starts (for no apparent reason) in 2005, with a new funding formula for school boards (named the “Hogg Formula,” like something out of Roald Dahl) and includes four instances of school boards being dissolved or relieved of their responsibilities.

Maybe elected school boards are the root of all evil in the system, but that list seems so subjective that it makes me want to play devil’s advocate and question the case against school boards.

 

Funding

The report relies heavily on what Glaze “heard” from those with whom she met in person and those who filled in the online survey.

That’s good, of course, but it would be nice to have some facts to back up the things she heard. For example, “The EECD [Department of Education and Early Childhood Development] is top-heavy. There are too many directors and managers and not a lot of people to do the research and digging,” was a comment received in the online survey, as was “School Boards themselves are obsolete. They eat up funds that can be directed back to the schools.”

So what are the facts? The report puts EECD staffing at an interesting 214.8, with 17 of those positions funded by “external agencies,” which Glaze says are “typically other government departments.” But is the department “top-heavy?” The report doesn’t actually say:

Accurate or not, there is a perception among some observers that the department is top-heavy, secretive and needs streamlining. Others point out they can’t tell because they can’t find out who’s accountable or how the organization works. The Department should acknowledge this perception and attempt to address it with a more transparent, accessible culture. At a minimum, its website should have a clear description of its structure, leadership, staff and services, organizational charts, and contact information.

I am completely open to believing the EECD is “top-heavy” but I would like to see some evidence to back that belief up. How does our department of education compare with other departments in provinces with better educational results? That would be helpful information.

As for the resources school boards “eat up,” Glaze provides overall budgets for each of the eight boards, notes how many members are on each board and explains that: “According to the 2016 stipend report, board members receive $13,000 per annum, the vice-chair receives $15,800, and the chair $21,300.

By my calculations (and please, I beg of you, double check them) that means board member stipends total $1.1 million, vice chair stipends $126,400 and chair stipends total $170,400 or $1.4 million altogether. According to the stats in the table below, the budgets for all eight school boards total $1.2 billion. So, school board stipends represent 0.12% of the overall school board budgets.

 

Source: Raise the Bar: A Coherent and Responsive Education Administrative System for Nova Scotia

Source: Raise the Bar: A Coherent and Responsive Education Administrative System for Nova Scotia

I can’t calculate how much of the budget is eaten up by school board admin costs because the report only provides the percentage of staff (or “full-time equivalents,” which is what we’re apparently now calling people) in admin positions in each board:

Source: Raise the Bar: A Coherent and Responsive Education Administrative System for Nova Scotia

Source: Raise the Bar: A Coherent and Responsive Education Administrative System for Nova Scotia

Again, I am open to believing school boards “eat up” resources, but wouldn’t this be the place to show us just how many resources they eat up? And is the percentage of administrative staff in the boards outrageously high, compared to boards in other provinces? That would be helpful information too.

Furthermore Glaze’s insistence that money saved by abolishing school boards must be put back into the classrooms sounds good, but wasn’t that the argument behind consolidating the province’s health authorities? Do we really want to use that as a model?

 

Democracy: Use It or Lose It?

Another criticism Glaze levels at elected school boards is that they do not represent democracy in action due to the high number of members acclaimed (61 of 97 or 63% of school board candidates in the most recent elections). She also cites the “lack of fresh voices” on the boards.

Those are dismal numbers and I’m the first to decry a lack of fresh voices in our democratically elected institutions, but is the best solution to the lack of democratic engagement to abolish the institutions?

During municipal elections in Nova Scotia in 2016, Mark Coffin of the Springtide Collective noted that “almost a quarter” of municipal seats up for grabs were won by acclamation. And voter turnout in the Halifax Regional Municipality in 2016 was so low (29.7%), the mayor was elected with 90,418 votes in a municipality with 304,652 eligible voters.

As for the “lack of fresh voices,” if that became a measure by which democratic institutions lived or died, we could probably kiss the CBRM council goodbye, given the number of sitting councilors whose careers pre-date amalgamation.

Again, I am not qualified to judge the contribution of elected school boards to our education system, but I can judge the logic of Glaze’s critique and I think it sets a dangerous precedent.

 

PCAP & PISA

The evidence that Nova Scotia’s students are not performing as they should be takes the form of standardized test results: the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), which compares Canadian provinces, and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which compares student performances across the world. (Both focus on science, reading and math.)

For reasons not explained, the report includes PCAP results from 2013 and PISA results from 2015:

 

 

What needs to be pointed out, I think, is that most Canadian provinces — including those that lead these evaluations, British Columbia and Alberta — have elected school boards.

So school boards need not hinder student performance.

 

Hidden Admin, Crouching Staff?

I will end by quoting an amazing line from the report which, although it doesn’t tell me whether school boards are a good thing or a bad thing, certainly tells me that the relationship between the boards and the EECD is dysfunctional

It’s a throwaway line, tucked under that School Board FTE Summary Chart. It says:

It should be noted that both the department and the boards suggested the other may be “hiding” employees.

Having introduced this incredible image of employees stashed away in attics and broom closets, Glaze lets the subject drop.

I would like to add that to the list of subjects raised in this report that really require greater exploration.

 

This just in…

As I write, the CBC’s Jean Laroche is reporting (via Twitter) that EECD Minister Zach Churchill, who just finished meeting with school board executives, is accepting “the spirit” of all 22 recommendations. The government will move on 11 of the recommendations immediately — including the abolition of the English-language school boards.

Clearly, Churchill didn’t feel the need for “greater exploration” of any element in the report.

 

 

 

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