Citizens seek democracy at AGM

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February 11, 2016 by realrenewal

Elected trustees sat mute and unresponsive as members of the public asked questions of them during Regina Public’s annual electors’ meeting, held Jan. 27. As per the division’s usual practice, non-elected staff and the meeting’s chair responded to the public on behalf of all the board.

Meanwhile, a solid contingent of principals and vice-principals stood by to block-vote against any motions presented by parents and community members. Thus – despite a change in directors – the suppression of democratic engagement continued at a level unseen in other school divisions.

The good news was that citizens still turned out, seeking to be heard against all odds. In the past, the electors’ AGMs were treated as showcases for board reports. Any sort of public debate or even questions were very rare.

An active campaign by RealRenewal has changed that scenario; it has now become commonplace for ratepayers to ask questions and present motions following the board reports.

International Baccalaurate cancellation challenged

Several citizens spoke against the cancellation of the International Baccalaureate program. In particular, a group of students pointed out flaws in the method for calculating program costs in the administration’s report to trustees.

They presented a motion calling on the board to continue the program, arguing that it was a needed investment in youth because it provided an internationally recognized certificate and a smooth transition to higher education. The students pointed out that almost every city in Canada, including Saskatoon, has an IB program in public schools.

While the students and their supporters came well prepared to present their position, they were clearly unprepared for a stacked meeting.

None spoke in favour of canceling the program. There was no debate. The students were praised for their presentation. Yet when the vote was called, the silent administrators – outnumbering students, parents and alumni – raised their hands against the motion on cue, and it was defeated.

Indigenous education: Why not homegrown solutions? 

RealRenewal raised questions in three areas: Indigenous education; staffing and budgetary support the Advanced Placement program; and cancellation of noon hour supervision.

On the matter of Indigenous education, the question was how deeply or widely board members had researched an education program imported from New Zealand. The board’s strategic plan states it will work to improve the achievement rates of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students by participating “fully in the research, development, and planning of the provincial FNMI Achievement Initiative based on New Zealand’s Te Kotahitanga project.”

In New Zealand, Te Kotahitanga was withdrawn in 2013 after the high cost of consultants did not appear to generate promised results.

After spending $40 million in consulting fees, a ministry spokesperson called it “a very expensive program that runs at the whim of its own.”

Te Kotahitanga was also critiqued by New Zealand education experts and teachers for an underlying philosophy that argues socio-economic conditions faced by students are beyond the ‘core business’ of improving achievement scores, and are merely an excuse for poor teaching.

A similar approach has been implemented in Britain. In the U.S., this thinking has been called one of the greatest policy failures introduced by George W. Bush.

In response to the question about whether or not trustees had fully researched the initiative, director of education Greg Enion said the program has been adopted by all school divisions and the ministry of education, and has been enthusiastically received by principals.

This can only mean the board has faith someone out there did deep research, and therefore individual school divisions need only follow along (as was the case in New Zealand before the program was yanked).

Enion added that the board does not need an Indigenous-led community action committee on education – as proposed by RealRenewal at a past AGM – because it has a Council of Elders.

Advanced Placement: Where’s the beef?

The same report that sounded the death knell of the IB program indicated its replacement, the Advanced Placement program, could be implemented with no additional teaching time, professional development, program promotion, or budget beyond a $100 AP test fee.

Trustees were asked if it was realistic to expect teachers to support a program off the sides of their desks – and if the promise of AP in every high school in fact represented an actual, identifiable, fully promoted learning program, with support for student learning that goes beyond access to a test.

The director responded that every high school principal has promised to implement AP. He did not indicate what classroom teachers have said accomplishing this without additional teaching hours or training.

Lunch rooms: When did equity become a luxury?

Trustees were implored to go back into the books and find the funds for free lunchroom supervision, as the program cut comes on the backs of the families who can least afford it and the board’s lowest paid employees.

Indeed, a 2008 board study recommended that universal noon hour supervision is needed to ensure equity across the system. What has changed?

Meeting chair and trustee Dale West pointed out the funding arrangement has changed: the province took away school divisions’ power to raise the mill rate, and now the board can’t afford noon hour supervisors.

It was stated that according to the administration’s review, many students could easily walk home for lunch but didn’t – so the cut could be considered a wellness program to encourage walking.

There was no indication the board’s review looked into whether the students’ parents were at home, or if there was any lunch waiting for them. Enion emphasized that lunch-time falls outside the “business” of education.

Who makes decisions?

One of the biggest unanswered questions of the evening was, “Who makes decisions?” A citizen pointed out that elected trustees were silent, and it was unclear what, if anything, trustees voted on when it came to major decisions such as new school construction or introducing military training.

Board chair Katherine Gagne stated that the province fully consulted with the school boards on P3 schools. However, West and Enion acknowledged that there was in fact no vote taken on these major items. Neither did trustees vote on cancellation of the IB program. Yet these decisions were wholly implemented.

No doubt ratepayers left the meeting wondering why they go to the polls to elect people to the school board. Such disenchantment would likely suit the government’s agenda, as the province moves to gradually disempower a body already prone to acquiescence.

Incredibly, trustees sign off their right to publicly voice constitutents’ concerns that go against the majority position of the board. Under the dictates of a trademarked Policy Governance model that has been widely adopted in Canada, “The power of directors is not as individuals but as a corporate entity” (Hough, 2002). Silence is enforced by threats of voting sanction and legal action.

Under this corporate model, there is little hope for citizens to expect a functioning democracy. Clearly as systemic revolution is needed, not just a change of trustees at election time.

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