Class dismissed | Education | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Class dismissed

A new school board will be elected this month with marching orders to behave itself and to do as the provincial education department thinks best. But are parents and the community getting short changed? And what about democracy?

Howard Windsor had just arrived home from his morning skate.

There was a phone message. Please call Dennis Cochrane, the province's deputy minister of education, it said. Windsor had an inkling what it might be about. Still, he didn't immediately return the call. He went upstairs to change into his jogging clothes first.

It was December 19, 2006. In the six months since he'd decided to quit his job, the 55-year-old Windsor had settled comfortably, happily into retirement. After 28 years as a faceless, usually nameless provincial bureaucrat in some of the province's most important, high-profile ministries---for the last two-and-a-half years, in fact, he'd been deputy minister to premiers John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald, effectively the province's top public servant---most people outside the bureaucracy wouldn't have had a clue who he was or what he stood for. Which suited Howard Windsor just fine. As did retirement.

The inkling he had about Cochrane's phone call was it must have something to do with the Halifax Regional School Board. Like most Haligonians, he'd been following from an embarrassed distance the zany, can-it-get-worse-yes-it-can saga of Halifax's dysfunctional school board. The feuding factions, the clashes over seating plans, the shouting matches...He'd also heard the minister of education's public threat to fire them all if they didn't smarten up. They hadn't.

Perhaps Cochrane was calling to sound him out on whether he'd be willing to serve as an appointed member of a new interim school board. He would; he'd had four children go through the Halifax school system, and he would be pleased to give something back. Or perhaps Cochrane was just calling for advice on who else to approach.

After changing into his jogging gear, Windsor returned Cochrane's call before his run. "We've been having some discussion," Cochrane told him, "and we'd like to know if you'd be interested in taking over."

His morning jog was on hold.

By the end of the day, so was retirement.

Sitting in a small meeting room in the school board's Dartmouth waterfront offices today, Howard Windsor smiles at his own incredible naivete, at the reality that "you don't know what you don't know." By the end of that day, he had agreed, not to be one among a dozen other members of a newly appointed school board or even the head of the new board, but the board---one man replacing all 13 members, including its African Nova Scotian representative---for the full 21 months left of the old board's term.

How much did Windsor really not know? Consider this: Although he was one of the province's highest-paid bureaucrats when he retired, he agreed to a salary of $72,000 a year on the assumption his new part-time position would take up no more than 15 days a month.

He knows better now. "It's a full-time job," he concedes. And more.

"I think what we have been able to do is lower the temperature and give people some cofidence that we're focused on education"

By most accounts, Howard Windsor has accomplished the modest goals his political masters set out for him, which mostly had to do with restoring a measure of stability and credibility to the board in the lead-up to this month's fresh-start elections.

Windsor began by visiting four or five different schools every week, talking with the principals, learning about their issues and touring their often rundown facilities. He did it, he says, partly because it was "important to be there, to be visible" and partly so he'd know what people meant when they referred to this or that school. He has now visited every one of the 137 schools in the system, many more than once.

Despite the fact he's been a one-man board and despite his bureaucrat's natural preference to operate outside the glare of the spotlight, he has also forced himself to become a public figure. He's held plenty of public meetings and conducted most business in the open in order to demonstrate that what he describes as "the business of the board" is proceeding and that the board---which is to say, him---is accountable.

He certainly hasn't pleased everyone. His decision this spring to target three neighbourhood schools for possible closure, for example, raised hackles and his efforts to appoint an advisory committee to partly "replace" the board's elected African Nova Scotian representative was greeted with skepticism within the black community.

Despite that, Windsor offers with becoming bureaucratic modesty, "I think what we have been able to do is lower the temperature and give people some confidence that we're focused on education."

But his very success, modest as it may have been, raises an interesting question. If one man can perform the duties of the old 13, do we really even need a school board at all?

If we do, whose views should the members of the school board represent: the provincial government that controls them? The communities that elect them? The teachers who work for them? The parents and kids who depend on them?

Who, in the end, does a school board exist for?

School boards are strangecreatures. Under the Education Act, they're responsible for "the control and management of the public schools within their jurisdiction." They're supposedly accountable to the people in their district who elect them. But they're also accountable to the minister, who can fire them.

Although the Halifax Regional School Board is responsible for 137 schools, 8,000 employees and 52,000 students, it has no power to raise its own revenue. The department of education exercises control and direction over most aspects of what happens inside the classroom and virtually all the money it gets comes through the department. So the province, for example, ultimately decides whether to fund construction of a new school. If it doesn't, the responsibility for---and cost of---maintaining an existing school, even one well past its best-before date, comes out of the board's annual budget. Not to forget that the minister---as we've seen---can get rid of an entire board if she doesn't like what it does, or doesn't do.

So do we really need it? Why not just let Carole Olsen, the board's superintendent, a professional educational bureaucrat, run the show and report to the department of education?

"Before I started this job, I would have counted myself among the questioners," Howard Windsor admits. Now, he says, "it's very clear to me that we need a school board." And it's not, he is now quick to add, a job one person can do for very long. "We need local input from the community---not just from education professionals---in the decision-making process."

How he sees that community input working is reflected in a board discussion paper entitled "Good Governance: October 2008 and Beyond," published in August "to help the incoming board" figure out what role it can and should play.

Essentially, Windsor believes the board should operate on a "policy governance model," setting broad policies and goals, "continue to improve student achievement for all students," and blah blah blah---while leaving Olsen to manage its day-to-day operations "without any blurred lines of authority." The superintendent would then be responsible to the board for achieving its goals and implementing its policies. And the board would answer to the ultimate boss: the minister of education.

"We need local input from the the decision making process."

In the report's "accountability framework" step graph, in fact, the minister of education is at the top. At the bottom are "School Advisory Councils"---parent groups that have no real power but can advise the school principal, who is the next rung up in the long ladder of accountability.

What is interesting about that neat, top-down, bureaucratic structure---as the paper itself points out---is just how similar it is "to the way most private corporations" are run.

In Howard Windsor's bureaucratically well-ordered world, the nine new school board members (the province has already agreed to his suggestion to reduce the number of members from 13) would each work as "a team player, problems occur when individual board members see themselves as representing only their constituency and not exercising balanced judgment in the best interests of the system as a whole."

Huh? Who decides what's "in the best interests of the system as a whole?" And who decides who gets to play on the team?

Doug Sparks, it is fair to say, would never have made Howard Windsor's team.

The two men, it is equally fair to say, hold very different views of what school boards are for and how their members should play together. That undoubtedly has much to do with who are they are and where they come from.

Sparks is a middle-aged black man who attended school in a Nova Scotia system still not far removed---in time or attitude---from the era of racially segregated classes. When the races mixed, the pot often boiled over. "I had to fight pretty much every day on the way to and from school," Sparks remembered of his introduction to a mixed Dartmouth junior high school. "Some kids would use the 'N' word and... 'We don't want your type here.'"

He learned to fight for himself---and his community. By the time he was a young man in the early '90s, Sparks had organized a thousand-strong march through Halifax's downtown to protest against racism on the local bar scene. A few years later, he waged a successful campaign to get city water services for the black residents of Upper Hammonds Plains and then had to wage another battle---this one in the courts and equally successful---to force the city to make good on its promise.

When Sparks decided to run for the African Nova Scotian seat on the Halifax school board (in 2000, in acknowledgment of our sorry history of racism and the reality black students---partly as a result---perform poorly in the classroom, the province designated one seat on the board for a representative elected by and from the black community), he saw himself, foremost, as a representative of the interests of his community.

It didn't take long for Sparks' perception of those interests to smack up against the views of other school board members. Sparks, for example, didn't believe the school board was doing nearly enough to implement a landmark 1994 Black Learners Advisory Committee Report, issued by the provincial department of education, that had catalogued the conditions facing black students and suggested ways to reform the system. Or paying attention to a 2002 follow-up report from its own African Nova Scotian advisory committee that made even more proposals for reform. Which is why in April 2006, Doug Sparks---representing the people who put him there---presented yet another report from the advisory committee documenting how little had been accomplished. Just two of 22 recommendations implemented, 13 partially implemented, seven ignored entirely. The outcomes were predictable: continuing high numbers of black student drop outs; way too many suspensions; abysmal graduation rates and a student body---and community---alienated from the system.

The results of Sparks presentation? Precious little.

The breaking point in Sparks' tenuous relationship with his fellow board members probably came after the board decided to investigate an alleged financial conflict of interest involving the board's only other black board member and her husband, a school principal. Sparks believed she'd been singled out because she was black; he wanted the board to investigate missing funds at another white-run school, and he also raised pointed questions about the board's superintendent handing out an allegedly untendered $70,000 contract to a former colleague. Those concerns got short shrift. And things went downhill from there.

The story of how the board became so embarrassingly dysfunctional was far more complicated than the even more embarrassingly simplistic media coverage often made it out to be. But the reality is that, by the time education minister Karen Casey decided to pull the plug on the board, it was already clear she wasn't as interested in democracy as she was in order.

Hence, the focus on the big picture, on team players...which raises a question: When everyone is on the same team, who speaks for those who don't make the cut?

On August 31, 2008, Howard Windsor staged a special workshop for prospective board members, part of the process of "attracting the right kind of people" to run for the new board. During the session, Windsor and other officials talked about how the board works, and Windsor himself offered "a little bit about how I think the board needs to work in the future in order to be a successful board."

More than 30 people attended the three-hour session; at least half a dozen of them are running in the October 18 election.

David Finlayson is one of them. A strategic planner at Helly Hansen, the Dartmouth-based international clothing manufacturer, Finlayson is running for school board in District 7, a sprawling expanse of HRM between Bedford and Tantallon.

Although he recalls a tendency among some at the wannabe candidates' session to "dig up old issues, what caught my attention was when Howard started talking about how this is a strategy position. You're supposed to be looking at things from an HRM perspective, as in what's best for the students and what's best for the board, and not really delving down into the nitty gritty of what's happening at this or that school...and that's what caught my interest because that's what I do at work."

Big picture stuff. He decided to run.

David Bentley didn't attend Howard Windsor's session for potential candidates. But Windsor is just as responsible for Bentley's decision to run for the school board, too. As is the small-picture stuff that ultimately makes up so much of everyday school board business.

At first blush, Bentley seems a most unlikely candidate for any public office, let alone the school board. He's 65, a journalist-entrepreneur who founded both the late, lamented Halifax Daily News and the still-and-always controversial Frank magazine, and now spends most of his time running his latest creation,, a popular local business and politics website. The closest he's come to educational issues, he concedes, was covering the education department's spending estimates back in the 1960s when he was a young Halifax Herald legislative reporter. He has never run for elected office, has no kids in the school system at the moment and cheerfully concedes that, before he decided to run, he "didn't know the first thing" about the school board.

But he does live near Saint Mary's Elementary School on Morris Street in Halifax, one of the three local schools the school board---AKA Howard Windsor---designated this spring for review for "potential closure."

The small, six-classroom, 100-student school, which has been serving south end Halifax since 1955, has been under threat since the board decided in 2007 to close it---along with two other area neighbourhood schools---and replace them with one larger, more modern building.

At the time, parent pressure forced board superintendent Carole Olsen to put the closures on at least temporary hold pending more public discussion.

In March, a Toronto consulting firm hired by the board to come up with a 10-year facilities master plan, suggested designating Saint Mary's as a "holding school," keeping it open for at least five years in order to "future-proof" the system in anticipation of increased residential redevelopment on the peninsula. More philosophically, the consultants also argued in their Imagine Our Schools report that "existing older schools hold a special place in the community. An older school can deliver a current education program...can be a better learning environment through improvements, alterations or additions."

But then, just a month later, Windsor accepted a staff report to "review" the school anyway because it isn't "currently providing the programming it should due to space constraints" and wouldn't be big enough to meet the needs of the future even if the area "attracts young families as anticipated by HRM." The school could be shuttered by September 2009.

Windsor's rationale was simple. The province---the real masters of the education system---will not invest in what he called "under-utilized space" even though they may pay more to build a new school. "We have to choose: Do we spend our limited dollars on more teachers, EPAs, guidance counsellors, and other supports for students, or do we continue to invest in patching roofs, plowing parking lots and heating underutilized buildings?"

David Bentley doesn't see it that way. Howard Windsor "thought he knew better than the experts and that pissed me off," he explains today. "I got so annoyed I decided to do something."

But Bentley doesn't want to be seen as just a one-issue, one-school candidate.

His own vision of what the future educational system should look like is very different from Howard Windsor's. "I see every one of the 137 schools in the HRM system as an individual franchise that has the potential to deliver the goods---if the parents and teachers at those schools are given more autonomy and the resources to go with it."

Bentley's views, in fact, echo those of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a right-wing think-tank that published a paper last month arguing that "the further centralization of control over schools goes against a rich vein of research that says if you want effective schools and engaged communities, you give them more power, not less."

Bentley would like education minister Karen Casey to give individual schools the chance to create their own boards of governors with parents, teachers, even "the Ken Rowes of this world... leading professional managers and shop floor managers, too, from their own communities" in charge in order to make sure the schools run in the best interests of their students. He points to the success of students from private schools because those schools "essentially belong to the parents."

Like the Imagine Our Schools consultants, Bentley also sees schools as more than just schools---as community hubs that would provide a neighbourhood focal point and cluster other local services from daycares to seniors' clubs.

He doesn't buy the argument that the best option is inevitably to replace smaller, aging school buildings with larger and more efficient new ones. "Look at Tower Road School," he points out. The Halifax Grammar School recently bought that surplus building---which had originally opened in 1912---after the school board decided to shut it down. The "wonderful-looking" structure now serves as home to the private school's middle-school students. Just as the former Chebucto Road School became home to the Maritime Conservatory of Music after the school board gave up on it, and Alexander McKay School in the north end is now the privately run Shambhala School.

"For my own stress level, I don't need that. I'm happy just being in the classroom teaching."

If Bentley happens to get elected---he's one of three running in his district---he will almost certainly champion the preservation of his own neighbourhood school. Which doesn't quite mesh with Howard Windsor's big-picture picture of what the board should be about. But Bentley's vision for Saint Mary's School is clearly also part of a broader world view of what the school board could be doing.

Would that make him a team player? Don't bet on it. Remember those school advisory councils, the ones Bentley wants to empower? In Windsor's world view, they are at the bottom of the accountability ladder. Looking up.

Doug Sparks has had enough. He isn't running for the new school board this time. "For my own stress level," he says, "I don't need that." These days, he's working as a teacher in Mount Uniacke. "I'm happy just being in the classroom teaching."

Though he says he would be satisfied with any of the three candidates running to replace him as the board's African Nova Scotia representative, he's personally supporting Reed Jones. "He's young. He's smart. He gives us hope."

Reed Jones is an about-to-be 29-year-old black man, a father of three children, an independent filmmaker, a poet and popular spoken word artist who offers regular writing workshops in Halifax schools.

Born in Toronto, he attended French immersion classes there before moving to Hammonds Plains in grade five. He remembers the transition as culture shock. "In Toronto, my best friends were a Chinese guy, an Indian and a black. Here, you were either black or white, and I encountered racism right away."

Although he says he's always intended to become involved in politics at some point, Jones acknowledges that it was "after Doug Sparks got into the whole little situation" that he began to take an interest in the school board. "I was coming to school one day and the (school) commissionaire started blasting me with questions, and I had no idea what was going on. At that point I began looking around and figuring things out."

Not that he wants to revisit what happened with the old school board. "It's a new group of people running, so I'd rather focus on that."

As for his own hoped-for role, he thinks he could help "bridge the school system with the community. I'm young, I'm fairly well connected to the kids in high school from doing workshops---kids stop me on the bus and talk to me---and I also have good contacts with the elders in our community as well as with young parents my age..."

Would that make him a team player---or a troublemaker? Or both?

When the House of Assembly meets at the end of this month, education minister Karen Casey plans to introduce legislation designed to bring what she calls discipline and decorum to future unruly local school boards. Members will have to swear an oath of office and agree to abide by a code of conduct. If they don't make nice---or perhaps simply don't agree to go along quietly with the majority---the other members of the board will now be able to discipline individual colleagues. If that doesn't work, the minister can fire the individual.

The interesting thing is that the minister's discussion paper---which initially proposed the new make-nice rules---never asks what has made the boards so dysfunctional in the first place. Or whether the system itself needs to change. And, if so, in what direction? Or, perhaps, whether we need school boards at all? Even if we do, should it be elected?

Karen Casey makes no apologies for that. "The purpose of the (discussion) paper was not to decide whether we need school boards or not...the purpose was to say how can we amend the Education Act to give opportunities and structure for better board discipline."

But is the "policy governance" model promoted as the de facto model by Windsor and the department really the best way to make our schools better for students or is it just a more efficient way for educational bureaucrats to maintain control of the system?

What about Bentley's idea that instead of centralizing power in a school board that may become the creature of the professional bureaucracy, we put more power into the hands of parents and teachers---and even students---and give them the tools they need to improve their schools, and their neighbourhoods?

Or Jones' view that he serve as a bridge between board and community?

Perhaps what we really need is a full discussion of the options---and possibilities. Don't hold your breath.

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