Geoff Johnson: Top school boards understand that student learning comes first


Budding school counselors should know that effective school boards focus on accountability, spend less time on operational issues and more time on policies to improve student achievement

It’s a matter of weeks before school trustee elections take place on Saturday, October 15.

The election will determine the nature of the school boards that will govern school districts, at least at the local policy-making level, for the next four years.

Candidate placards are popping up everywhere. Election research has shown that name recognition is perhaps the most influential factor in getting elected.

People seek to become school trustees for a variety of reasons — to improve the school system, gain political experience as a stepping stone to municipal, regional or even provincial politics, or, in the case of retired teachers or administrators, to continue to participate in public education.

Then there are the single-problem candidates who want to correct some “wrongs”.

Most candidates don’t realize that individual trustees don’t have the power to make changes or somehow “fix” the system.

This authority belongs solely to the Board of Directors and is exercised by majority vote. But once that authority is exercised, individual directors are obligated to support the board’s decision in public—like it or not.

Even so, this authority is best exercised at the political level, not at the administrative level.

“Politics” is generally defined as the process of setting a course to guide and determine present and future decisions.

The school board’s policy book is not a book of rules and regulations; it is a guide, the framework of a philosophy that hopefully reflects the community’s expectations of its school system.

It is then up to the superintendent to convert policy into action.

Becoming a school trustee is a serious matter that requires an oath of office taken before a judge, justice of the peace, local government business officer, or school district secretary-treasurer.

This oath affirms that as a school trustee he or she will abide by the School Act and “will not permit any private interest to influence my conduct in public affairs”.

This “school law enforcement” has in the past become a stumbling block for school trustees who disagree with provincial government policies and tax rulings.

For example, unlike their municipal and regional counterparts, school boards cannot carry forward a budget deficit or a budget surplus to the following fiscal year.

Failure or refusal to file a balanced budget with the provincial Department of Education may result in the minister dismissing the board and appointing an “official administrator”.

Despite a board’s desire to “take a stand,” this “sacrifice on principle” process does not usefully serve either the school district or the community that elected the board.

In some respects, however, it could be said — and with good reason — that school trustees, in these circumstances, find themselves in the painful position of acting as a buffer between provincial government decisions, particularly tax decisions, and their responsibility to enforce the consequences of those decisions at the school district level.

Effective school boards focus on accountability, spending less time on operational issues and more time on policies aimed at improving student achievement.

The best school boards understand that student learning comes first.

This implies that decisions are made on the allocation of resources such as time, money and personnel for this purpose.

Successful school boards engage in team building and development activities with their superintendents to develop shared knowledge, values, and commitments for improvement planning.

In my own experience, one of the primary responsibilities of a school board is to develop and maintain a collaborative relationship with staff and the community by establishing a strong communication structure to inform and engage stakeholders on this happening in the district.

A few years ago, I spoke to a seasoned school district communications officer who very succinctly explained this responsibility by saying, “Taxpayers bought and paid for their school system. We owe them the courtesy of an explanation of what we do with their money.

Above all, it will be up to newly elected councils to determine how to position the school system to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Important demographic, economic and social forces are shaping the future — we know this, and we also know that a quality education is directly linked to adapting to these forces.

School boards must ensure that programs are developed and implemented in such a way as to produce independent learners in a world where knowledge and information are of great value.

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Geoff Johnson is a former Superintendent of Schools

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