HRSB just the start…

While dismissing the elected members of the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB), was a dramatic, decisive and above all needed step, is just the first step in what hopefully will become full reform of public school governance in Halifax.

It has been only ten short weeks since the parents and residents in our community started our campaign to ensure public consultation regarding the future of our three Halifax elementary schools. In that short time, the manifest weaknesses of the current system have become glaringly obvious.

There are three areas that need to be reformed: elected board composition and payment, capital planning, and reform of Department thinking on capital funding and school size.

The last Board had many internal problems and a shortage of members with management and governance experience. Elected board positions need to attract and be held to the same standard and degree of professionalism as any private sector company or government agency that boasts an annual budget of $350m. An independent committee should review board payment and make recommendations.

The elected representatives are as often acclaimed as elected, and in one by-election the turn out was no more than four percent. An alternative model would see the each high school family of schools elect a representative to the Board, through the School Advisory Councils. This type of change would help ensure that representatives are from the school community, and responsible to that constituency.

The final reform here could be that HRM and the Department each appoint additional members to help round out the Board, and to ensure all skills that are needed to run HRSB are present at the table. This will would also to overcome the current urban/rural split that plagues the Board.

The second area is capital planning. HRSB has a “Proposed Capital Plan” that was prepared by staff, submitted to the Department and then approved retroactively by the elected Board three months later. This plan was created with minimal input from the public. In my family of schools, the last public consultation was the St Pats/QEH School Closure Review of 2002-03, which recommended that no schools be closed at this time. The capital plan of 2004 recommends closing ten of eleven elementary schools on the peninsula by 2020, to be replaced by only four massive big box schools, all without meaningful public input.

The solution is to take this power away from the Boards. Ontario has recognized that massive school boards become disconnected from the communities they serve, and has mandated that all facilities usage and replacement be planned on a community level, involving the schools, residents, municipalities and the school board. In this cooperative environment, a school with an unused classroom is an opportunity for a new program, not a problem! Each Halifax family of schools should have its own facility planning committee.

The third issue concerns the Department’s view that small community schools are inefficient. The Department of Education calls the shots on major renovation and new school construction and at present, off the record, they say you have to close an old school to get a new one. They are driving the charge for “efficient” schools, which means big and ineffective institutions. They decide when and where to build new schools. Their notion of what is efficient requires reform.

The solution is a comprehensive overhaul of Department policy to recognize that smaller community schools are, in fact, more efficient and cost effective in terms of start to finish, per student cost of education delivery. It needs to be recognized that as the population of Halifax grows so too will the number of schools we need in the system. The Department also needs to develop a funding formula for boards and community capital planning committees that will result in stable, multiyear capital funding. Without it no capital plan can have any meaning.

Minister Karen Casey has demonstrated that she has the resolve to tackle the hard issues, and for this she must be applauded. I believe that the Minister knows that this is just the first step. School governance reform, community planning with all the stakeholders at the table, and most importantly, stable multi-year capital funding are required in order for our education system to fulfill the needs of our community and our children. I look forward to seeing what she does for an encore.