The questions below were formulated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association for the 2010 Trustee election forums for Canadian Rockies Public Schools in Canmore and Banff, for which Local #59 was kindly the host. I’ll update it with links and fresh info as it becomes available and relevant. But constituents will always know what I said during the 2010 election campaign.
1. What, in your opinion, is the purpose of public education? The purpose of public education is to provide the best possible education to ALL students. I believe that public education is fundamental to democracy and as such its dynamism, excellence, inclusiveness and universality must be nurtured and preserved.
2. What specific and concrete steps would you advocate to improve the quality of education in your district?
a. Ask the key questions and be authentic and courageous. Generative governance requires trustees to focus or frame the important issues. Specifically, the board will change the way we do business – this may include bringing more people to the board table; we will certainly change the way board meetings are done, so they are more relevant and attractive to everyone in the school community and beyond. This will be our Professional Learning Community work.
b. Continue work to develop wrap-around services: mental health, Early childhood development, and so on: cohesive and comprehensive services for students.
c. Enact policies which enable teachers, administrators and students to pursue the good initiatives that fit Inspiring Hearts & Minds.
d. Ensure that teachers continue to have access to the professional development they need and continue to work as Professional Learning Communities so as to best serve the kids.
e. Promote public education as the first choice for children.
3. Which element of Inspiring Action do you most support? To which are you most opposed? I most support the transparency and accessibility of the process. While some of the questions do suggest a particular direction or bias, there is the opportunity to insert dissenting opinions, to have a voice by introducing a full new topic, blogging and commenting.
I do not oppose any particular aspect of the document – although I hope that the government does not feel obliged to revise the School Act on a set-in-stone timetable. The dialogue occurring now might need to be continued, even expanded before changing legislation which will have a profound and long-lasting impact on public education. The Minister has said “the New Education Act is to be principle-based, enabling rather than prescriptive.” So it sounds like there is no pre-scripted agenda at work here, but true consultation.
4. In light of the current funding situation, what strategies should the board use to meet the needs of students and the community?
a. Continue to do what we do now – direct administration to focus on classroom/student needs first.
b. Actively foster and enhance existing community partnerships and develop more, e.g. mentor, work and internship opportunities; Outreach to some of the amazing individuals and organizations in our district.
c. Lobby provincial government as regards funding formula to address local pressure points.
5. School boards are constitutional creations of and funded by the province. Is the board obliged to align its priorities with those of the province?
No. As I see it our accountability is to the local community. To quote the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta: “In all things, trustees must be committed to the ideals of the community and the public school system, and loyal to both. Community and public school education are two faces of the same coin.”
Our job locally is to convince the province to align their goals with ours… if we are both seeking the same outcome – what’s best for kids – how hard could that possibly be? 😉
Of course, under the law, school boards may only do what is allowed in the School Act and ministerial regulation.
6. How can the school board most effectively influence financial and policy decisions made by the provincial ministry of education?
Focus on the desired outcome – we are all seeking the best results for children, so it must be possible to find common ground and cultivate a respectful, mature, credible relationship in order to be heard. It is important to bring evidence to bear to those in the Ministry of Education. It is often helpful to establish pilot projects with government as CRPS has a sterling track record as a learning organization.
One has to be prepared to not give ground on important issues, but confrontation on doctrinal issues for the sake of it, is self-indulgent and counterproductive. At every opportunity, we need to tell government, through our MLA, through Ministry officials and directly to the Minister not just about the challenges we face, but also about our ongoing initiatives and progress and, most certainly, our successes.
7. What do you believe are the major pressures on your district’s budget?
a. One of the major pressures is the cost of our Weighted Average Teacher Training and Weighted Average Teacher Experience. In 2009 CRPS was #1 in the Alberta for this line item. Given that the cost of all staff represents in the region of 80% of the district budget, it directly impacts crucial issues like class size and scope of programming. It is one of the inherent inequities in the funding formula that we continue to bring to government attention. The good news is we have seasoned, skilled veteran teachers and staff.
b. Declining enrollment, due to changing community demographics and increased competition from other schooling choices. CRPS must sustain and focus our excellent school system. If we build it they will come.
8. Under what circumstances, if any, would you support the use of Public-Private Partnerships (P3’s) to build and operate public schools? Is this a better approach than having the school board contract the construction of and then maintain school facilities?
It would take a lot of hard evidence to convince me of the value of P3’s. There seems to be intrinsically less accountability in that model. Construction won’t be an issue for CRPS for some time and our O&M staffs are a part of the school district community – I can’t imagine losing that valuable relationship.
However, given that Public-Private Partnership is a government-approved approach, if my community needs a new school I am bound to objectively examine this method of school capital funding, since the issue is “What is best for children?”
9. Do you support free and unrestricted local collective bargaining between the board and its teachers?
Yes, when it IS local. There’s the rub. Technically the last collective agreement was reached by local bargaining, but in reality the ATA and the provincial government negotiated the agreement, bypassing school boards entirely. The board does not have the authourity to tax; the province holds the purse strings. Local bargaining is fraught since there are many disparities between boards allowing for the deterioration of local relationships between the board, teachers and the community. In the past, a lot of time, effort, money and angst went into bargaining to arrive at a flawed end result. The five-year peace provided by the provincially negotiated agreement has allowed teachers to focus on teaching/learning and the board to do so as well.
At the last go-round, the province and the ATA excluded school boards. At the moment, all three parties are at the table and have the opportunity to talk about more than just money, but about what is required to reach a system that engenders continuous improvement for the children’s education. There is great potential in this discussion. Some kind of unique hybrid process may be the result, where local bargaining addresses issues specific to the locality, best worked out by the players at that level. At least the major stakeholders are at the table this time.
10. Who should be accountable to whom in our public education system?
We are all accountable to the students – parents, the board, administrators, teachers, staff, bus drivers, everyone. That being said, boards are first accountable to the community that elected them. Superintendents should be accountable first to the board; at present superintendents are answerable to the board and the Minister. Administrators are accountable to the superintendent and teachers to administrators.
11. What role does standardized testing have in accountability? The community, parents and the provincial government see the standardized test as a way of ensuring everyone is doing their job in the delivery of education. These tests should be one tool for teachers to assess their students, not the ultimate be-all-and-end-all accountability measure. It will take a considerable cultural shift to no longer see education in terms of consumerism but in terms of learning. We are going to have to work on this one.
I read the ATA paper Real Learning First; I understand that teachers are working hard to determine the best, most appropriate ways to assess kids’ learning; I am hopeful that the evidence they will bring to Ministry will ensure test results are used in the best possible way – which is NOT on the Fraser Institute’s Ranking of Schools list. Our job as a board is to support our teachers in this work and to help the parents, and our community, follow and understand the work.
12. What is your opinion of the provincial government’s accountability pillar initiatives? What, if any, changes would you support in the area of accountability?
The pillars provide an objective set of benchmarks which, according to Alberta Education:
• support continuous improvement
• improve student outcomes
• provide a clear understanding of jurisdiction performance and successes
With the guiding principles:
• transparent process
• emphasis on achievement
• holistic approach to evaluation
• on-going collaborative processes
• all jurisdictions can succeed
These can be helpful in formulating the three-year Education Plan but it is important to not have a knee-jerk reaction to results but to carefully examine the reasons behind the figures and deal with real, locally relevant information. As far as changes go, perhaps an analysis needs to be done – are the right questions being asked? Are “satisfaction results” reliable or should we more closely examine “performance data”?
13. Do you support offering full-time kindergarten programs for all students within the public education system?
Yes. This was recommended in the Alberta Commission on Learning final report. It should be offered but not mandated. It should be provincially funded. That being said, we need to have a community conversation about the possibility of introducing this in 2011-2012 – because given the current funding situation, CRPS will have to charge parents for this initiative. I hope it will one of several important community discussions embarked on in this school year.