School Boards Represent Local Self-Government, which Includes Local Mandates

The Government of Alberta made two decisions in 1994 that had what I believe were unintended consequences – but serious, negative, lasting consequences.

First, the provincial government abolished the capacity of locally elected school boards to tax property owners.  The provincial government undertook to provide all the funding necessary for education.

Second, the provincial government made the decision that, from 1994 on, all on-going funding for locally elected school boards would come from Alberta Education.

With the first decision, the provincial government totally repudiated the idea of a local mandate, or local self-government.  They eliminated the means by which a local community could decide, “we want to do this for ourselves; we accept responsibility for making it work; and we will tax ourselves to make it happen.”

Prior to 1994, school jurisdictions could supplement provincial funding to improve selected programs (such as language arts, or vocational education, or the fine and performing arts) according to local priorities.  Since 1994 boards have not had access to local resources to respond to local priorities.  Similarly, before 1994, school jurisdictions could innovate in response to local circumstances.  For example, Early Childhood Services was not introduced into Alberta by the provincial government:  it was introduced by local school boards that responded positively to arguments that E.C.S. would be a valuable initiative, worth doing.  Local school boards took an initiative that the provincial government was reluctant to undertake, and their success caused the provincial government to change its thinking.  The same is true of many special education initiatives in the late 1970’s and ‘80’s , including native education initiatives (Plains Indian Cultural Survival School, Ben Calf Robe program, etc.)

In 1994 many concerned citizens could see the obvious result of repudiating the ideal of local mandate and local self-government.  People immediately expressed concern that variety of decision-making would be lost as decision-making was centralized.

What was not obvious was that the provincial government’s decision to provide all funding through one Department – Alberta Education – would seriously undermine local collaboration, joint projects, and seamless responses to community issues.

From day to day most public school jurisdictions in Alberta deal with the mandate of 13 – or more — different provincial government departments.  If students are involved with drugs, and the police or court services are part of the situation, they bring with them the mandate of the Solicitor-General’s Department.  If an irate parent is taking the time of the principal over an access order, the mandate of Children and Family Services may be involved.  If the Government wants to conduct vaccinations in the schools, for students and/or the general public, the mandate of Alberta Health is involved.

School jurisdictions want to be helpful; they want to be collaborative.  They want to provide a venue:  they think of the school as a community resource and hub.  They want their staff to have the time and energy to meet with parents or the professional staff of other governments and agencies.  School jurisdictions tend to believe that all communities should have a school, both greenfield communities on the outskirts of growing cities and mature communities in the middle of such cities and in the heart of rural Alberta.  School jurisdictions tend to believe that utilization involves much more than day-time enrollment.  School jurisdictions tend to appreciate the value of the school building as a community asset that makes many contributions to the well-being of the community.

The problem is that the hands of the school board are tied, sometimes loosely and sometimes tightly.

Locally elected school boards only receive on-going funding from one provincial government department – Alberta Education.  The mandate of Alberta Education is restricted to the Program of Studies, the Curriculum, and a few specifically identified programs.  The Department insists, rightly given its mandate, that all the funds it channels to school boards should be invested in support of its mandate.  Alberta Education doesn’t have a mandate to fund energy and custodial costs if the gym or the library are used by the community in the evening, or on weekends, of during holidays, so Alberta Education is niggardly about these costs, though they may be invaluable for the life of the community as a whole.

Alberta Education doesn’t have a mandate to keep “under-utilized” schools open, even if doing so would be a tremendous asset for the community, and so the department pressures school boards to close “under-utilized” schools.  The department’s determination of “utilization” is entirely driven by the day-time enrollment.  Intermittent community use does not contribute to “utilization”, as far as Alberta Education is concerned.

Before 1994 a community could tax itself to keep schools open.  That isn’t possible today.  Before 1994 a school board could absorb the cost of collaborating with the Boys’ and Girls’ Club or the 4H, or the municipal government (for joint use agreements, etc.).  To-day, school boards don’t have the resources to collaborate, or to turn collaboration into action, unless and until they plead with a provincial government department.  In the meantime, the resources they use to plead, and justify, and audit are taken away from education and from community development.

Decisions imposed by the provincial government 16 years ago have had the following effects.

1.              Local innovation has been stifled, instead of being encouraged.

2.              Local collaboration has been discouraged.

3.              Seamless delivery of services has been impaired.

4.              Wrap-around services have been seriously impaired.

5.              We have lost operational diversity, which in the world of organizations is like losing bio-diversity.

It is not completely unexpected that school trustees would retreat from inter-action with their electors when they have no resources available to respond to elector suggestions/demands about local mandates, local initiatives, local priorities, and local collaboration.

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