In mid-September, a few parents took to Twitter to thank Calgary Board of Education Trustee Joy Bowen-Eyre for helping them secure additional bike racks at their school. A picture of bikes stacked neatly by the school door accompanied the thank yous.
Why shouldn’t you pat your trustee on the back when you think he or she has been responsive to an issue?
Well, because securing resources for an individual school, whether it’s a computer, basketballs or bike racks, isn’t the job of a trustee.
Now, we don’t actually know what impact Bowen-Eyre had on this decision, if any. We also don’t know if there were other, more needy schools that missed out because of politics.
But, doesn’t it show there’s problem in the system when the principal couldn’t secure needed facilities for his or her school? Instead of handing out kudos, perhaps those parents should be demanding answers.
So, what is the role of a trustee?
A recent Calgary Board of Education presentation to school councils, by Trustee Lynn Ferguson captures the role pretty accurately. (The presentation was adapted from Alberta School Boards Association information.)
Trustees have a fiduciary duty to ensure the Board’s $1 billion budget and capital resources, including over 200 schools are well managed, that 100,000 plus students are safe and that they meet provincial learning expectations.
Boards must follow generative governance practices, where trustees take direction from the community as they set policy and determine the future of the organization.
The problem is that many trustees of the Calgary Board of Education aren’t doing this important work.
In the area of fiduciary duty, all you have to do is to look at the most recent CBE budget to see that the five trustees who voted for the budget didn’t meet that duty.
CBE expenses total $1.1 billion. A full $200 million, or almost 20 per cent of the budget is simply labeled “Services, Contracts and Supplies.”
One would think that this would be external contracts, because there is another $648 million in salaries and benefits, but there is no information at all as to what this pays for or how these external vendors meet student’s learning needs.
How can trustees think they are fulfilling that legal duty to manage public dollars if they don’t know where this money is going? Is this careful management of finances?
When you look at generative governance, there is little indication that Trustees have met, let alone listened to their communities.
Administration organized a set of Trustee-hosted system meetings in five different areas of the city in February. Then, trustees held two meetings (in October and April) with the Council of School Councils.
While there are reports from these meetings, it’s not clear that any action was taken in response to issues. The meetings followed the Board’s agenda – which was more about informing parents, not about getting direction from them. It’s not clear that attendees were able to influence the agenda.
Are three meetings a year adequate for appropriate consultation?
Only Trustees Carol Bazinet and Sheila Taylor held their own public Town Hall meetings twice per year to meet with the community.
Another venue to meet parents should be school council meetings, however, outside of the months before an election, it’s not clear trustees attend many of these meetings. Bazinet says she attended four to six council meetings per year, Taylor six to eight, but she says, although she writes to every school council in her wards in September, she doesn’t get many invites. Other trustees didn’t provide information on their attendance.
Trustee Sheila Taylor writes a regular blog to inform and solicit comments – a great (and transparent) consultation. Some have also used social media to engage citizens. Taylor (@taylor1113), and Bowen-Eyre (@joyboweneyre) are on Twitter. They both provide information and engage, to varying degrees, with the public in that venue. George Lane (@georgelane4cbe) and Ferguson (@lynnferguson34) set up accounts recently, presumably for the election. There’s no sign of Pamela King on Twitter.
Then there is the public board meeting.
Over the past three years, a majority of CBE trustees voted to scale back the opportunities for public presentations at the meetings. They also moved the start time to 3 p.m., making it almost impossible for parents, working parents and members of the public to attend.
How can trustees fulfill their role of generative governance if they don’t have meaningful, open and transparent engagement with the public?
Voters should think about the role of the trustee and ensure they vote for candidates who understand their responsibilities.