The Public Still Expects Trustees to be Accountable

Ten years ago, Jane Cawthorne resigned from her position as trustee for the Calgary Board of Education. The reason she gave was that the public expects trustees to be accountable, but under the governance model chosen by the board, trustees are given little access to make changes, and little opportunity to speak on behalf of their constituents. Ten years later, not much has changed. As an aside, Pat Cochrane was chair of the board in 2001, as she is now. The opinion piece that Trustee Cawthorne wrote ten years ago in the Calgary Herald is as relevant today as it was then.

School boards need control of own destiniesJane Cawthorne. Calgary Herald. Calgary, Alta.: May 10, 2001. pg. A.23

When things are alive, they are in a constant state of change. Change in itself is not a cause for alarm. Public education is alive and vital and changing. In this change, there are issues that need our thoughtful consideration.

The public owns public education. Each of our lives is affected by the work that goes on in this system. The skill of your surgeon was likely nurtured here, the thoughtfulness of your minister, the precision of your mechanic.

The public makes many demands on this system. The expectations are high, as they should be. The public rightly asks for small class sizes, in which a clearly defined curriculum is effectively taught. They rightly expect their schools to be accountable for the tax dollars used to support them. They rightly expect the special needs of individual children to be supported. They rightly expect their schools to be caring communities where their children are safe. This is a difficult and expensive venture, but worthy of our collective effort.

The public also rightly expects accountability from elected officials. They expect to be able to call their local trustee when they have concerns. Unfortunately, there is a big gap between what trustees in the Calgary system are authorized to do for their constituents and what the electors expect.

This gap has at least two significant sources:

First, authority over what happens in this system is dictated primarily by the province. The province has removed much of local school boards’ authority in recent years. Even the power to tax has been removed. I sometimes receive calls from people who threaten to remove their tax support from public education. They do not realize the emptiness of such a gesture.

In addition, the provincial government tells us the how, what, where, when, why and who of our work. It holds the purse strings which dictate the conditions in which all of this important work takes place.

Meanwhile, the public expects accountability from the local board, as though it is capable of changing the fiscal situation. The public expects the trustees to be able to make classes smaller, to expand services and to improve resources. Even an ideally managed school board is unable to meet these expectations within current fiscal constraints.

Second, many boards, school boards included, define their work through a model that clearly says what matters are operational, and therefore handled by management, and what matters are governance, and therefore handled by the board.

A board of trustees’ primary function is to be accountable to the public. The public does not particularly care if its concern is operational or governance. They hold the trustees accountable as elected officials. Yet the trustees’ role is limited to policy governance. Stepping over the line risks the wrath of administrators who look upon it as a lack of faith in their ability and an unwanted intrusion. It also makes gaining access to what is needed to resolve particular issues difficult.

Furthermore, the corporate board speaks with one voice. After a vote, the board is expected to show solidarity. Renegade board members are divisive and tend to disrupt public confidence in decision-making. Unfortunately, this leaves dissenters with no outlet to speak for their constituents, or speak their own conscience.

Herein lies the dilemma. Public education is under intense pressure to respond more effectively to the public will. But external realities and internal organizational choices make this difficult.

Is a trustee the servant of the province, providing a public face for the expression of its will? Is a trustee the messenger of the decisions made by administration? Or is a trustee the servant of the public, providing a means through which the public can express its will to the province and administration and influence the work of the school system that it owns? I have always thought the latter is true, but I have worked in an environment that seems to expect the former.

People would prefer that I give a simple reason for my resignation. Perhaps if I cited my disgust with a cruel budget that does not have the interests of children at heart, my decision to leave might be understandable. Maybe if I express my dismay with inequity in the system and the failure, year after year, to improve conditions for our most powerless constituents my action would be acceptable. Perhaps I could cite my dismay over a recent decision to remove students from the Plains Indians Cultural Survival School, an operational decision over which I apparently have no say. All of these possibilities have elements of the truth. But as always, the whole truth of the matter is much more complex.

So what must be done? Local boards need the autonomy to serve their local constituents who elect them. This means the province may have to loosen the purse strings. We are fortunate in Alberta that we can afford the kind of excellence in our public education system that we rightly expect. It may also mean the province must return the power to collect and use the local tax base to serve local people and enable school boards to take control of local matters. Conditions in Calgary are different that those in a small rural Alberta town. This is a reality, and Calgary trustees must be enabled to act for Calgarians.

Boards must not permit themselves to be hamstrung by institutional organizational structures and governance models that disable their capacity to serve the public. Ways must be found for dissenting voices to be heard in an atmosphere that truly values diversity.

Administrators handling operations must work effectively with governance bodies, knowing that we serve a common purpose and are on the same team. And the public needs to press for elected officials to be enabled to serve them.

The public has a right to this service. I trust the public to keep its expectations high and that the will can be found to meet those expectations.

Jane Cawthorne resigned Tuesday as a trustee with the Calgary Board of Education.

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