A group of candidates are running for office as school trustees in Edmonton who intend to change the nature of the trustee role and exercise their role as democratically elected oversees of the work of schools. Mostly under forty – and several just around thirty – it is a different generation from the “established” trustees and those they have hired as Superintendents of Schools. We can expect change.
While they accept their fiduciary responsibilities, they see their role in terms of educational outcomes and the development of educational strategy. They understand that they are not professional educators – they don’t need to be. What they are is important: they are the people’s representatives ensuring that educational processes are working and that they are effective in doing what they say they will do. In others words, they understand that their primary accountability is to the electors and the students in their jurisdiction. They are they to ensure that the schools in their constituency are providing the best and most appropriate education.
Superintendents will not like this. In some school jurisdictions, trustees are not permitted to visit schools, yet they are accountable for them. In others, all the reports they receive concerning education are always “positive” and “glowing” – it is as if drop out and the low rate of transition to post-secondary or our abject failure to provide a world-class education to aboriginal students did not exist. Trustees must be connected to the schools in their wards directly, must understand the strengths and weaknesses of those schools, must understand how they are doing – warts and all.
Older trustees will not like this next generation. They will challenge the model of governance which overly focuses on fiscal issues at the expense of teacher quality, student opportunity and educational achievement. They will see the shift from the “hands off” the real work of schools model of governance to a strategic governance role as a challenge. For example, Michael Janz, who is a candidate in Ward F in Edmonton, wants to establish a Ward Council – “a chance to bring together school councils, community leagues, MLAs, City Councillors and other interested citizens tri-annually to discuss our public education system”, engaging the community in the work of schools. Michael also favours direct engagement of trustees in the process of implementing the new strategy being pursued by Alberta Education – Inspiring Education. He is a big believer in “hands on” trusteeship. Many of the “old guard” will be challenged by this approach.
Superintendents – the CEO’s of the education system in your area – are appointed by Boards and the Minister. They have dual accountability. The Alberta Teachers Association, in a document entitled Courage to Choose – Emerging Trends and Strategic Possibilities for Informed Transformation in Alberta Schools, 2010-2011, are calling for an end to this dualism and are asking that the accountability be simple and clear – Superintendents should be locally accountable for the performance and development of the education services in a particular area. Trustees hire and can dismiss them. Superintendents report to them. This same document also suggests that each school, together with their stakeholder community, develop a school development plan which commits the school to a certain level of educational performance and activities – such a plan could be the work of the school in partnership with a Ward Council.
But they key suggestion from this document is for school boards to stop seeing themselves as trustees for the Government of Alberta funding for their school system, but instead to return to the idea that they are trustees for their local community – the people who elected them – for the work of the schools in that community. They are not answerable to the Minister of Education, but to the electors.
What this new generation of school trustee candidates stands for is a return to democracy. Shocking isn’t it.