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Provincial governments or Local Communities: Where does school board accountability really lie?

November 12, 2009

For many Albertans, the relationship between school boards and the provincial government is hazy and unclear. This is certainly understandable; the letter of the law is complicated enough, but the spirit of the law brings even more subtlety and intricacy to the matter. School boards raise many eyebrows for Albertans. Are they extensions of the provincial government or autonomous forms of local government? Are they ultimately responsible to the Minister of Education or the communities that elect them? The answers to these questions are decidedly complex, but the first step to unraveling them almost always begins with the story of Alberta’s first public school board.

In 1881, when our first school board was formed, Alberta had not yet been carved from the vast Northwest Territories. It was not yet a province of its own. There was no elected assembly for its residents and its affairs were governed entirely by the Lieutenant-Governor and his appointed Territorial Council. There were no laws providing for local government, there were no laws providing for property taxation, and there were certainly no laws establishing a territorial education system. So, on a cold evening in January, the pioneering citizens of Edmonton gathered informally in their small frontier town’s tavern. They wanted a public school that belonged to their community, and they were ready to take it upon themselves to achieve this goal. They elected a group of individuals from amongst themselves and entrusted them with the tasks of collecting the necessary funds, building a schoolhouse, and hiring a teacher. This first group of trustees performed admirably. They petitioned every landowner for a ‘subscription’ (the first form of property tax in what is now Alberta), and as far as we know, there was not a single holdout. Everyone contributed to this important community project and three months later, a school was built, a teacher was hired, and the children of Edmonton started classes in the province’s first public classroom. Similar school boards began to appear across the Territories, prompting the Territorial Council to write the first the school law and the first local government law in 1884.

The purpose of this story is to show that originally, school boards grew from local communities that took responsibility for the education of their children and the outcome of their collective future. They did not wait for the Territorial Council to lay the legislative groundwork. They did not wait for school laws, local government laws, or property tax laws. They did not wait for permission from their government to address their common hopes, dreams, and aspirations. They agreed on the value of a public school that belonged to their community, and together they built one. They did this long before the province of Alberta even existed as a political entity. In fact, these school boards pre-date the province by twenty-four years. Therefore, it is hard to argue that school boards are, as some have said, “the children” or “creatures” of the provincial government. In many ways, it could be argued that our provincial government is, in fact, the child of school boards. Our early communities’ first experiences with democratic government were through school boards, and the desire this created at the grassroots level for provincehood cannot be dismissed.

Of course, when the Province of Alberta was finally created in 1905, the letter of law became more complicated for school boards. Section 93 of the Constitution Act (1867) – formerly the British North America Act (1867) – lists those matters about which the provinces make laws. These include local government and education. It should be pointed out that the Constitution does not require our provincial governments to make such laws. It only states that if any government is going to do so, it must be a provincial government. So, with the formation of the Province of Alberta in 1905, a new relationship between school boards and government was formed – on paper at least.

While the letter of the law is certainly important, the Constitution of Canada is much more than what is written on paper in the Constitution Act. Aside from the numerous other acts that form our constitution, there is also the spirit of the law and constitutional convention that has developed and perpetuated itself for centuries in both Canada and the United Kingdom. For example, strictly speaking, the Canadian court system is not a separate order of government, and the Constitution Act is silent on the relationship between the courts and the government. But, the larger Constitution is quite clear. Both politicians and citizens know that the neither the Prime Minister (an office not once mentioned in the Constitution Act, by the way), nor cabinet, nor the House of Commons can interfere with the decisions of the courts. Judicial independence is not written anywhere in our Constitution. Instead, it is based on history, precedents, conventions, and the sense that citizens would reject the legitimacy of any government that interferes with the courts.

The case with municipal forms of government, like school boards, is quite similar. It is quite true that our provincial government has the statutory, letter-of-the-law power to keep school boards subservient like they are now, or to disband them entirely. The same holds true for municipalities. The Government of Alberta could disband the City of Calgary and run it entirely from their offices in Edmonton if they were so inclined. On paper, municipal forms of government answer to the government.

Of course, the reality is quite different. Like the court system, municipalities and school boards are important elements in our society’s whole fabric of government. They might not be acknowledged in the fine print, but they are important nonetheless. And just like the courts, municipalities and school boards argue that their independence and autonomy is, to some degree, protected by the spirit of the law. That is because these institutions have deep roots in our communities. The functions for which they were created in our province’s early history remain important today, and many citizens – perhaps the majority – continue to believe that communities across the province should have the independence, autonomy, and resources they need to do what local people want done locally. Of course, local forms of government cannot do what local people want done locally unless they are primarily accountable to the communities they serve, and not to some distant provincial government. Communities are the ones that elect school boards. Communities are the ones that rely on school boards to educate their children and guarantee their future. Thus, it only makes sense that school boards should ultimately be accountable to their communities first and foremost.

These are important issues to ponder as the School Act is put back onto the public drawing board for the first time in twenty years. Citizens and politicians will have a lot to discuss. Will local government be empowered to serve local communities, or will their powers be further eroded? Will more centralization in education lead to the same kind experiences in our schools that are present in our hospitals under a government-appointed, province-wide health super-board? The answers to these questions are important, and everyone should do their best to ensure that their responses are heard during the School Act review.

Mayors and city councillors from across Alberta express their support for school board concerns in new legislation

November 9, 2009
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This weekend, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) passed a resolution at their 2009 Annual General Meeting stating that “across the province, municipalities feel that locally elected school boards are an integral part of local governance.” Additionally, the resolution declares their intention to “strongly support locally elected school boards and request the province ensure in the new education act that:

  1. School boards have the authority to responsibly undertake local education priorities and
  2. School boards are given natural person powers.”

This resolution from the AUMA is a very positive development in the School Act review process. It demonstrates that school boards and municipalities can work together to promote each other’s objectives. After all, both are servants of their local communities, and both are intimately concerned with providing a bright future for their constituents. The Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta commends the Grande Prairie Public School District for communicating their concerns to their colleagues on the Grande Prairie city council, and we commend the Grande Prairie city council for appreciating the importance of empowered school boards and bringing these concerns to the AUMA. The PSBAA thanks the mayors and city councillors from across Alberta that belong to the AUMA for their support and their recognition of the important role school boards play in Alberta’s communities.

The prominent place natural person powers occupies in the resolution is particularly positive. Alberta’s municipalities were granted these powers in 1995 to provide them with more statutory flexibility, to help them unleash their potential, and to allow them to innovate creative solutions to the desires and dreams of their constituents. Throughout the School Act review process, the PSBAA has strongly advocated for the same natural person powers to be granted to school boards in new legislation. Click here to read an explanation of natural person powers and the ways in which they would help school boards serve their communities.

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Whereas the Province of Alberta is undertaking a complete rewrite of the School Act; and

Whereas the Province of Alberta is gathering public input into education; and

Whereas across the province, municipalities feel that locally elected school boards are an integral part of local governance; and

Whereas local school boards can best deliver education services through increased authority with natural person powers;

Now therefore be it resolved, municipalities strongly support locally elected school boards and request the province ensure in the new education act that:

  1. School boards have the authority to responsibly undertake local education priorities and
  2. School boards are given natural person powers.

What are natural person powers? And how will they help school boards serve our communities?

November 9, 2009
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Over the past two weeks, the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta has received numerous School Act review submissions from our member school boards to the Minister of Education. We have made them available on this blog (on the Other Submissions and Discussion Papers page along the top), and as more submissions arrive, we will continue to post each of them with a brief summary of their recommendations on new school legislation.

Several common threads within these submissions are becoming apparent. All across Alberta, communities want similar opportunities to participate in the governing of their schools at the local level. Communities want their school boards to have the tools they need to build strong educational opportunities for their children. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the tools they want are very similar across the province.

Echoing the recommendations made by the PSBAA to the Minister in September, an overwhelming majority of submissions have called for new education legislation to empower school boards with ‘natural person powers’. School boards are not alone in calling for these powers either. The College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) and the Association of School Business Officials of Alberta (ASBOA) are the professional organizations that represent Alberta’s superintendents of schools and school board secretary-treasurers. Their joint School Act review submission includes a survey of their members on what they feel should be included in new school legislation. An astounding 71.9% of respondents agree that extending natural person powers to school boards is either important, very important, or critical. More recently, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) passed a resolution supporting natural person powers for school boards. Clearly, natural person powers have considerable momentum behind them within the education stakeholder community. But, what are they? And, how will they help school boards serve our communities?

Natural person powers are essentially the powers enjoyed by a real person when granted to some form of corporate body. Generally, these corporate bodies are businesses, but increasingly these powers are being extended to local forms of government. In 1995, for instance, Alberta’s Municipal Government Act was amendment to provide our municipalities with natural person powers. These powers grant corporate bodies the right to own, sell, and use property with the full discretion of any natural person. They permit corporate bodies to enter into contracts, to sue, and to be sued. Finally, they accord corporate bodies the freedom to do anything the law does not expressly prohibit.

This last feature of natural person powers is perhaps the most important. Currently, school boards are limited in the way they serve their communities by what the School Act explicitly permits them to do. Put simply, the Act tells school boards what they must do, but only acknowledges a small handful of ways for them to do it. A new School Act extending natural person powers to school boards would reverse this. The Act would continue to lay out the duties and responsibilities of school boards towards their students and their communities, but it would grant them complete discretion in fulfilling their responsibilities, with the limits placed on what they cannot do instead of what they can do.

These powers would grant school boards flexibility that would not only allow, but inspire creative solutions to education in the community. This has already been demonstrated in our cities, where natural person powers have allowed them to unleash their potential since 1995. The same would hold true for school boards. Citizens could approach their school boards with fresh ideas and valuable concerns, and trustees could address them without straining to contort themselves through the hoops of a cumbersome, twenty-year old piece of legislation. Our school boards are not meant to operate as branch offices for Alberta Education headquartered in Edmonton. They are meant to operate as the servants of their communities, where local citizens know best and local trustees have intimate connections with their constituents. This puts them in the unique position to make the best decisions for our children, their students, and everyone’s future. Natural person powers would expand the range of decisions trustees could make to improve upon Alberta’s education system.

New School Act review submission from Peace-Wapiti Public School Division

November 9, 2009

The Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta has received another submission for the School Act review, this time from the Peace-Wapiti Public School Division. Their submission contains five broad areas of concern, each with specific recommendations. These include:

  1. Values: Values that are important for the new School Act are opportunity, fairness, citizenship, choice, diversity, and excellence. Every student must have the opportunity to achieve their potential in an education system that is equally fair, regardless of background. Students learn in different ways, have different needs, and different ideas of success, so the education system must provide choices. This system must also develop citizenship, embrace diversity, and encourage excellence.
  2. The Mission Statements: New legislation must contain mission statements for the public school system and the exclusive school systems that receive public funds. These mission statements must make it clear that public jurisdictions are mandated to provide an open and equitable education, while programs based on some form of exclusion will be left to non-public jurisdictions.
  3. Governance Framework: New legislation must empower school boards with the flexibility to face new education challenges and the ability to enter into diverse contracts with other children services providers. It should also be written to enable school boards to meet the educational needs of their local communities.
  4. Safe and Caring Schools: New legislation must support school boards in the provision of safe and caring learning environments.
  5. Defining Roles: New legislation must clearly define the roles of administrators, teachers, students, and parents.

Click here to view the Peace-Wapiti Public School Division‘s submission. It has also been placed on the Other Submission and Discussion Papers page (along the top) for easy access.

St. Albert Protestant Schools writes to the Minister of Education

November 9, 2009

St. Albert Protestant Schools has written to the Minister of Education with their recommendations on the School Act review. Rather than offer input on the principles that would form the new education framework, their submission identifies challenges with the structure and time lines of the review process itself.

Their letter can be viewed here. It has also been placed on the Other Submissions and Discussion Papers page (along the top) for easy access.

Medicine Hat School District’s School Act review submission

November 5, 2009

Another School Act review submission has arrived, this time from the Medicine Hat School District. Their submission focuses on two important themes: First, it acknowledges the need for a renewed recognition that the role of local school boards is equally important to the role of provincial leadership from Alberta Education. Second, it highlights the important role schools play in preparing their students for their futures as engaged members of their communities.

Click here to view the Medicine Hat School District‘s submission. It has also been placed on the Other Submissions and Discussion Papers page (along the top) for easy access.

School Act review submission from Lethbridge School District

November 5, 2009

The Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta has received a copy of the School Act review submission from the Lethbridge School District. Their submission contains numerous recommendations, both specific and general. Their general recommendations outline their broad vision for new school legislation, and they include:

  • “Our Board believes that the new legislation should clearly state the central role that public education plays in the delivery of education to all children in the province.”
  • “Our Board believes that the new legislation must acknowledge and affirm the role that locally elected Boards play in the governance of public education. Trustees must and should be accountable to the local electorate.”
  • “Our Board believes that the new legislation must provide for School Boards to have access to funds through the local municipal tax base without having to go through a plebiscite process.”
  • “Other ways to provide locally elected Boards with increased autonomy in order to respond to issues and concerns of the community include:
    • Granting Natural Persons Powers to school boards
    • Enabling Boards to borrow funds for capital projects, including modernization of aging facilities”
  • “Our Board believes that the new legislation should be more enabling and less restrictive than the current act. The legislation must provide for the ability of Boards to develop adaptive or alternate forms of education in order to meet the unique needs of students in the future.”
  • “Our Board believes that the new legislation should define public education as being inclusive both for children / students attending schools and for all adults in the electoral process of local governance. Every resident, ratepayer and elector should be free to choose to support, contribute and receive the benefits of a public education system.”
  • “Our Board believes that the new legislation, in coordination of other legislation, should provide a framework for coordination of services to students by the various government departments (Education, Health, Children’s Services, Justice)”

Like other submissions, the Lethbridge School District submission speaks to the importance of community involvement at the local level in the governance of the education system. It speaks to the importance of a financial connection to the local community. It speaks to the importance of inclusiveness, not just in the classroom, but in the decision-making process. It speaks to the importance of providing an enabling, as opposed to a restrictive framework for school boards, including the granting of natural person powers. Finally, it speaks to the importance of enabling the school to coordinate their services with other government departments focused on children.

Click here to view the Lethbridge School District‘s submission. It has also been placed on the Other Submissions and Discussion Papers page (along the top) for easy access.