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Alberta Politics

trustees: school officials or politicians?

I was pleased to read that Edmonton Public School Trustee Sue Huff is interested in joining the Board of the Alberta Party. Ms. Huff has been a strong voice on the School Board and the Alberta Party will be lucky to have her on their board. At first glance it may seem like something small, but the title of a short news story about Ms. Huff’s blog post reminded me of a larger issue facing our elected trustees:

Former school official turns to politics

Having stood in a competitive election and unseated an incumbent, Ms. Huff’s “turn to politics” is obviously something completely foreign (see: sarcasm). While I do not think the next thought applies to the aforementioned Trustee, the title of hints towards one of the largest challenges facing elected institutions in Alberta. Not only do many elected trustees appear to see their roles as administrators or officials rather than politicians, but that much of the media also sees it this way.

The October school board elections present a critical opportunity for elected school boards to prove that they are more than just glorified administrators. Trustees have a responsibility to provide leadership on the board and the connections between the educational institutions and their communities, something that they have not excelled at in the recent past. Trustees need to become relevant to their communities beyond those traditionally interested in education issues (ie: parents, teachers, and students).

Until then I have a difficult time believing that most Albertans would notice much of a difference if elected Trustees were replaced by provincially-appointed boards or civil servants from the Department of Educations.

10 replies on “trustees: school officials or politicians?”

Dave, I think part of the problem is that School Board Trustees work within a very limited scope. My impression is that they have very little authority or ability to materially impact the educational system.

This is not the fault of the trustees, all of the ones I know are committed to the education system in Alberta and care deeply about their communities and the children they serve.

To be effective and useful school boards need to be recognized by the provincial government as a legitimate (and necessary) form of local governance and the province needs to actually give them the authority to make material decisions.

Dave,

You make a distinction between official and politician. I didn’t see the difference until you stressed the relations between the school board and the community. I feel that there is a huge opportunity for improvement in that area, at least in Calgary. Trustees are currently seen as rubber-stampers of administrators’ requests, I believe. I don’t think (as Bill above does) that the trustees need more authority handed down from the province. They can take initiative and make their role relevant by learning about and standing up for the needs of all stakeholders.

Christopher Spencer (Ward C Edmonton trustee candidate) tweeted about this over the weekend. Should trustees be considered politicians? he asked. My tweet back said “Yes, & as such, do good public work to build strong comm & schools” And I would like to expand on that.

I believe many trustees are doing good leadership and political work in their local communities “to build strong communities and schools” and I think you are right that the media often does not profile this type of work.

As do all politicians, trustees do their work on several fronts:

1) being out in the community and creating opportunities for hearing what is on the hearts and minds of community members (EPSB Trustee Esslinger, for example, held a town hall in spring; trustees and boards in other parts of province have also done similar events and indeed, trustees in the Public School Boards Association used this type of community work to develop “The Essential Elements of Excellent Education” http://www.public-schools.ab.ca/Public/association/E4_2010.pdf to help communities think about what is really important with respect to public education. Started in advance of the Inspiring Education dialogue and the new Education Act currently being developed, this document gives a good lens for everyone to look at the new legislation through. It is great leadership work that hasn’t been picked up (to my knowledge)by the media. Too bad!

2) using what they are hearing to shape policies and priorities to which the Superintendent and his staff then respond — thus reports and information that come to the Board table to assist in decisionmaking are generated from the direction of the Board in the first place. Sometimes as a trustee I realize that I don’t publicly make the connection between what I am hearing and the way I am voting. Doing more of that would remind people that in fact their connection to a trustee has value and is meaningful. What do you think? Is it just a case of poor communication?

3) working positively with other elected officials to share information and perspectives (for example, EPSB meets regularly with City Councillors; in SW Edmonton, Councillors Anderson & Iveson, MP Rajotte, MLAs Hancock & Horne, and Trustee Bergstra & I meet regularly). We all serve the public and it serves our common constituents well if we understand each other and work well together.

With reference to Mr. Given’s comments… although Boards do not have taxing authority any more as they used to, they are still making substantial decisions with respect to the shaping of public education in a village/county/town/city. In the reshaping of the new Education Act, EPSB hopes for enabling legislation & natural person powers. For more see Appendix 1 of the following report http://www.epsb.ca/board/oct27_09/item03.pdf

Bill is right about the province taking power away from trustees. But they could still have influence.

Trustee Huff has frequently been a minority voice on the school board, voting against the common stream. But through her blog and Twitter account she’s made a splash that has rippled all the way into the traditional media. With very little power, she has become remarkably influential.

As she moves on to provincial politics, groups such as ARTES (http://www.responsivetrustee.com) are working to continue her legacy of connectivity, accountability and independent thinking. That’s what people in Ward C will expect of me, if they select me to succeed her. (Hence my campaign slogan: Like Sue Huff, only Fatter and with a Beard.)

Further thought: I’ve heard some trustees suggest that the Minister of Education might get really mad if he gave an inch, and they tried to take a mile. He has the power to fire them. My guess is that it frustrates Mr. Hancock more when he gives an inch, and trustees take a tenth of an inch. Through the Inspiring Education initiative he’s pursuing change. Devotion to the status quo and refusal to consider new ideas will make this centuries-old office irrelevant.

As a school board trustee in my second term, I do not see myself as an administrator or an official; God help me, I AM a politician. As a member of the School Board, I have the opportunity – in collaboration and consultation with the community – to asssist in defining the SD vision and to establish policy to enact that vision.

The School Board is a direct link to the constituents in the school district… local government. No, we don’t have a lot power; no, we don’t have a high profile. However we are the democratic connection of the local community to its education system.

This seems a blanket statement to make: “Trustees have a responsibility to provide leadership on the board and the connections between the educational institutions and their communities, something that they have not excelled at in the recent past.” On what evidence, exactly, do you base this? I have met trustees from across AB who as individuals and Board members have demonstrated responsible, accountable and innovative leadership. It is ironic to me that if trustees do their job well – influencing, enabling, connecting… not chest-thumping or megaphoning – they will have a low profile in the community. The issues should sit at the fore, not the personalities.

“If elected Trustees were replaced by provincially-appointed boards or civil servants from the Department of Education…” no difference would be noticed? Hmmm… just like no one noticed a difference when hospital boards were eliminated? Local boards have the capacity to respond to local initiatives, needs and pressures. Good ideas move from the bottom up, as well as vice versa.

Bill is right. The Province needs to recognize trusteeship as a vital and necessary force
to education and local autonomy and democracy.

Wow. Thanks for all the comments and the great discussion.

Esme: Thanks for the comment. I appreciate a response from your perspective as a second term trustee in Canmore.

I am wondering, as a School Trustee, do you feel relevant to your wider community, or just her community of parents and school staff that have a vested interest in the school board?

As an Edmontonian, I get the sense that my trustee doesn’t feel like I’m one of his constituents because I am not a parent of a student or an employee in one of the schools. This is troubling and has shaped how I view the role of trustee in my community.

Also, it is easy to say that “The Province needs to recognize trusteeship as a vital and necessary force
to education and local autonomy and democracy,” but you are unlikely to see this translate into more than lip-service. Continued centralization of authority by the provincial government is not something that is going to be turned around by good wishes and intentions.

– Dave

I very nearly tweeted something to the effect of “which part of being a trustee isn’t politics” in response to that headline… but figured it needed a longer treatment than that.

Glad I’m not the only one. Thanks for the post Dave, but even more thanks to everyone else for bothering to write really interesting, insightful responses.

Ooh I really like Amanda’s almost-tweet.

Dave: yes, I absolutely feel relevant to the wider community – but Canmore is a small town – easy to get plugged in with different folks… not relevant to everybody, but the outreach continues. Re: “lip service” & “good wishes and intentions” If trustees walk the talk and provide effective local governance and are smart about networking and BEING politicians, that’ll push those good wishes and intentions into ACTION. I hope. That’s my plan and I’m sticking to it.

Thanks Dave for this blog and the important conversation it has generated. I think this is the essential question for all trustees (and trustee candidates) to answer: Who do you serve first and foremost? As we know, serving two masters simply does not work.

I have always felt that, as an elected politician, I serve the public (which includes the 70% who do not have children in school.)Others have challenged that view and pointed out the fiduciary duty to the board, the corporation, that is, the legal entity of EPSB. I feel that, by serving the public, you serve the board. Others have felt that by serving the board, you serve the public. The confusion about which comes first and how best to execute the role is the central tension point for boards. Everything you do as a trustee (and how you do it) stems from your answer to this critical question and consequently, it can become a dividing line on boards. Perhaps the new School Act (or Education Act, as I believe it will be called) will settle this once and for all.

I think everyone would benefit from a shared understanding of the role.

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