It was good to see the media finally reporting on the effect of the government’s planned abolition of school boards on the participation in education governance by African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities. The CBC posted a story on the weekend featuring the comments of Archy Beals, the elected African Nova Scotian representative on the Halifax board and Darren Googoo, the appointed Mi’kmaq rep on the Cape Breton-Victoria board. Neither was happy with the Liberals’ plan to axe school boards, thus depriving them of their say on local educational matters. Replacing that hard-won opportunity with a nebulous promise of increased participation on provincially-appointed advisory councils was found wanting. As both representatives pointed out, they already have councils to advise the government on educational matters. But the government rarely listens, making such councils a poor substitute for local input.
Minority representation on school boards is a fairly recent development, dating back to 2000 in the case of African Nova Scotians and 2009 in the case of Mi’kmaq. And before that we had the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP), created in 1996 to extend, with the help of federal cash, the opportunity for Acadians to run their own francophone school system.
What each of those milestones suggests is that school boards were, until now, considered important. The initiatives represented the commitment of successive provincial governments to the idea that education of all children is enhanced by minority participation on local, elected school boards that for the most part conducted their business in public. To turn around now and inflict collateral damage on minority representation by getting rid of school boards (except CSAP) is reprehensible. At best, it says that minority representation on school boards was just tokenism, a politically correct initiative to be abandoned on a whim.
It has been said before but it bears repeating: the argument for getting rid of school boards is specious. The Glaze report, which is providing cover for the Stephen McNeil government’s autocratic impulses, devotes little attention to the recent history of minority representation or to the lengthy evolution of school boards in general. Aside from highlighting some well-known controversies, the report hangs the argument for getting rid of elected boards on the low turnout for school board elections and the number of seats filled through acclamation.
That “use it or lose it” approach to democracy is a slippery slope for elected politicians, including MLAs. Because of the party system, acclamations for seats in the legislature don’t happen these days. But the current crop of MLAs, sitting in a legislature elected with a mere 53.6 per cent turnout of voters, should think twice before accepting the notion that the continued existence of democratically elected bodies should depend upon voter turnout.
Our constitution would likely prevent the federal government from ever abolishing the Nova Scotia legislature due to voters’ lack of interest, but the logic of the Glaze report could be used by the legislature to dispose of municipal councils. Take Halifax, for example, where low turnout and acclamations are not limited to school board elections. The school board is considered expendable because three of the nine seats (33.3 per cent) were filled through acclamation and voter turnout ranged from 16.5 to 22.7 per cent, depending on the district. For council, it was not much better – four of 16 seats (25 per cent) in 2016 were filled through acclamation and turnout ranged from 28.4 to 31.8 per cent.
Short of some cataclysmic event it would be politically untenable for the province to try abolishing municipal councils because of too many acclamations and low voter turnout. But in principle, what’s sauce for the cooked school board goose should be sauce for the municipal council gander.
And in defence of school board members who are about to lose their jobs on trumped up grounds, it should be pointed out that if turnout and competition for seats are criteria against which they would be judged, the deck was stacked against them from day one. There are 20 MLAs (basic stipend $90,000) and 16 municipal councillors (at $87,000) covering the same territory as nine school board members ($13,000). Compared with MLAs and councillors, school board members have no media profile and little or no means to make themselves known to the general voter in their far flung districts. Plus, most of them are part-timers, needing to earn a living when they are not attending to their school board duties.
The mayoralty race, for all of the campaigning and media coverage of the candidates, attracted less than one in three eligible voters in 2016. Would it be surprising if many of those conscientious citizens, looking down the ballot and seeing candidates about whom they knew nothing, chose to refrain from voting for school board? That was the choice I made after the Liberal government of John Savage took the first big step toward reducing the importance of school boards by amalgamating three boards into one and drawing up sprawling, unwieldy districts that made a mockery of the notion of interaction or communication between school board members and the public.
Don’t expect the Liberals to address any of these contradictions as they proceed with their legislation. They will brush them off, while claiming improvement through some vague enhancement of school advisory councils, self-perpetuating bodies that have been in existence for over 20 years with no noticeable beneficial impact on the education system. Councils have the virtue of being local, but unlike school boards, they meet in closed session with members who are neither elected nor accountable. Not that this lack of democracy matters much in McNeil’s Nova Scotia.
Richard Starr is a former journalist, civil servant, political hack and seventh generation Nova Scotian. He is devoting his retirement to family, volunteer activities and writing about subjects that interest him and, he hopes, others at Starr’s Point, a Nova Scotia blog where facts matter, where this post was originally published. His most recent book “Equal as Citizens: the tumultuous and troubled history of a great Canadian idea” is about the history of equalization and the fiscal transfer system in Canada and came out in 2014.
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