Trustees Need to Vigorously Debate Issues

On August 19, 1999, Learning Minister Lyle Oberg fired all seven members of the CBE board of trustees. One incumbent was re-elected, along with six new trustees. Pat Cochrane was chair of the board during the first 18 months, after which Jane Cawthorne, who was seen as a “lone voice”, resigned. Two days after Trustee Cawthorne’s resignation, the Calgary Herald ran the following editorial. Ten years later, the board continues to struggle to find the right balance between vigorously debating issues in public and speaking with a united voice.

Code of silence, Editorial Board, Calgary Herald. Calgary, Alta.: May 12, 2001. pg. OS.06

It is a shame Jane Cawthorne has resigned her trustee position with the Calgary Board of Education. If she had cited only health reasons for her decision, it would be a simple matter of thanking her for her contribution (which has, in truth, been impressive) and wishing her a speedy recovery. But it is not that simple.

It appears in 18 short months in office, her colleagues on the board have already come to believe they are to be defenders of the system, rather than representatives of their constituents’ interests. Trustees’ demands to show a united front, coupled with administrators’ demands to butt out of their business, led Cawthorne to conclude she can be a better advocate for the causes she believes in from outside rather than from within.

This is a serious problem. The position of trustee, though not partisan, is political. Trustees must act as a board of directors and hold their superintendents accountable for the system’s management. But they must also be prepared to vigorously take sides on issues, and challenge the public to engage in the debate.

This board has done many things right, such as improving the CBE’s relationship with the province, tackling some of its financial issues head on and scaling back its micromanagement.

However, no trustee should be forced to choose between her own conscience and a board-imposed code of silence. Cawthorne’s resignation makes it clear trustees still need to find the right balance.

2 thoughts on “Trustees Need to Vigorously Debate Issues

  1. In fact several years later in 2007 under Chair Cochrane, the CBE Board of Trustees won two Conference Board of Canada national awards for governance in the non-profit sector and overall sector Spencer Stuart Award for Excellence in Governance. Neither Jane Cawthorne nor Carole Oliver were trustees on the board at the time. In the intervening 10 year period student results have shown continuous improvement, a feat no other school board has been able to match.

  2. It is too bad a current trustee Lynn Ferguson’s husband feels the need to reply, especially with partial information. Some of the awards are self nominated and there are other divisions who continuously improve. Are the CBE staff and students are doing well inspite of the board? The issue is why is so much being done in camera, why does administration ignore the board or not inform the board and why does the chair hold private meetings with the Superintendent of which trustees have no agenda or report?

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