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“Your schools may have their problems, but at least you have power through the voters’ booth,” said the 41-year-old founder of the New York City Parents’ Union, created four years ago out of the frustration of dealing with a school board that is now wholly appointed by politicians.
Simple. Out of the mayor’s office. With no elected officials.
The Toronto board will hear from a provincial adviser later this week on how to move ahead with changes to how it is run, but it is believed that anything that happens in Toronto could affect other public boards in the province.
In New York, former mayor Michael Bloomberg took over a network of small, scandal-plagued school boards in 2002 and created a sleek new city-wide board with 13 members, all appointed — eight by the mayor and one by each of the city’s five boroughs (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island).
They weren’t called trustees, they weren’t paid and he didn’t even call it a school board — it’s the Panel for Education Policy — and when two of Bloomberg’s appointees disagreed with his plan to stop promoting kids automatically from one grade to the next, he fired them just hours before the vote.
Even the 32 new local parent-based councils he created to advise the new board are “completely ineffective,” said Davids, who says her group will lobby to have the five borough appointments to the Panel for Education Policy replaced with elected members this June when the mayor-run system is up for review at the state legislature.
“My advice is, don’t give up any say in how your children are educated.”
New Brunswick actually scrapped school boards all together between 1997 and 2001, until public opinion forced it to restore some sort of elected body. But when it did, it set clear limits to their right to get involved in front-line issues — no lobbying for an individual parent’s child, no say in hiring principals, no encouragement to show up unannounced at a school. It’s a hands-off role that focuses on city-wide policy.
Australia and New Zealand have eliminated district school boards all together and instead given each school its own board. Finland and Sweden let municipalities oversee their schools, with each school having its own board.
The options can seem dizzying.
Gerald Galway, who recently co-authored a national report on school boards, said that in the past, Newfoundland and Quebec appointed or partially appointed boards, and “these systems were widely criticized as being inefficient, discriminatory and undemocratic, and were replaced — in the case of Newfoundland, by public referendum — by public systems and democratically elected school boards.”
Galway, an education professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, said his research has found that “local democracy authority for most decisions about teaching and learning” is worth retaining, while leaving things like the curriculum to the provincial government.
But amid the unending scandals at the Toronto District School Board, educators are wondering if there is a better way for the city, and even other parts of the province, where board problems are also common, though not as prominent.
“The best governance model is where you can ensure complementary skills around the table,” said former deputy education minister Charles Pascal, now a professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of education.
Well-run boards have staggered terms, he said, to ensure experience is balanced by the fresh ideas of newer appointees who represent the community’s diversity.
While some parents worry about dealing with bureaucrats without an elected official in their corner, Pascal said it is principals and superintendents who should be listening to parents, and be heavily involved in communities.
“If (the school council) is working well, and you have a principal who ensures it is working well and one who is respectful of school councils, why do you need trustees meandering around, trying to solve all these issues? Why do you need trustees with expense accounts for professional development going off in 22 directions, rather than two or three directions and pulling together?”
“I think it’s time to do that.”
Tomorrow: Is the TDSB too big?