It is fall of 2018 and our public municipal elections are underway across British Columbia. These elections, when the dust settles, determine not only the shape of municipal governments, but most importantly for school districts, the school trustees who constitute Boards of Education. This year, fairly typical of other years, there is the routine significant turnover that we have come to anticipate. On the morning after elections, 46% of school trustees across the province are newly elected.
Such a change reminds me about the importance of governance. This blog is about what I have come to believe and it also provides some practical suggestions on how we can all work toward governance systems that matter and support the systems we need and want in service of all children.
It’s one thing to get elected, it’s another to lead effectively
I am a strong believer in democracy. Taking to heart Winston Churchill’s famous quote “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” love it or hate it, democracy is government “of the people, by the people” as stated originally by Abraham Lincoln. There are no qualifications, there are few prerequisites, but basically if you are interested in holding office, you simply have to win the vote. From there, you are cast into a world of systems complexity and intergovernmental relations that surprise most people who are new to the work.
The election process is the ultimate system of accountability and is also the ultimate form of responsibility. Once chosen, the responsibilities are indeed enormous and the public accountability is clear. You hold the seat because a majority of voters want you to have it, or at the very least, you got more votes than those below you at the end of the day.
For many people after the day of elections, the learning process truly begins. This learning process can be helped by some clear induction work at the local level and by a framework for your success. Here are some suggestions for Boards of Education to help transition in new trustees, but also to support effective governance regardless of your level of experience. I share the thoughts below with thanks to all those who have taught me and who have helped shape the governance work and shared their resources.
What should a plan look like?
The school year is fairly easy to predict for the major cycles. September is enrolment and opening routines, October is professional developing and settling in for the year, November is finalizing the budget for the year and on and on. Staff will be key in helping Boards determine this flow of work. Going through the process of highlighting the key governance decisions that you will be making each month helps the public anticipate the work with transparency about the decisions that lay ahead. In Surrey, our plan can be viewed on our web site. Such a plan allows you to see the ebbs and flow of the year, to schedule the work that needs to be done in advance, and it also helps trustees and the public see what’s coming.
Support your plan with professional development
Governing a school district is a complicated business. For those who have not done it before, the surprises are many and come often. To help people come up to speed in general, to deal with ongoing new trends and emergent issues, and manage sound decision making processes, it is helpful to have your in-service and professional development activities for trustees mirror your strategic governance plan. For one example, if October is a month of major Professional Development, some topics might include:
- What does the Board need and want to know about the numerous activities that districts and schools are hosting?
- How do these activities support the educational direction of the district?
- How have the Board’s budget decisions the previous spring supported and deepened this work?
- What is the relationship between professional development and in-service and how can a Board come to understand the complexity of professional autonomy and Collective Agreements on professional development?
Your plan should reflect research on governance
There is no shortage of research and publications on effective governance. These documents are extremely helpful as discussion points for boards in an annual review of your governance structures and effectiveness. You need to make a plan that suits your context, so in the spirit of education, beg, borrow and steal (with permission) from the many others who have done extensive work. Here are two examples that come to mind:
- Crown Agency Corporate Governance: A Good Practices Checklist
- Imagine Canada: Standards for Governance
In both of these documents, there are things that will resonate strongly with Boards of Education and things that are not so applicable. However, both provide great discussion points on examining the effectiveness of your governance structures. Again, the critical piece is to have a structure that fits in your specific context.
Provide regular opportunities for reflection
In the tyranny of the urgent that is public education, sometimes it feels like there is never ample time to step back and to reflect on the effectiveness of your governance structures. In your plan, you should provide at least two opportunities a year to talk about your structures, their effectiveness, and whether you wish to consider any changes in the year ahead. If you ask teachers the one thing that they need more than any other, very often the reply is…time. This is true for governance as well and you should take the opportunities to carve out time to reflect, revise, and constantly refine your governance structures so they provide you with the results you desire.
Plan for the unexpected
Blogs are short and governance is a massive topic. The most important point that I’m trying to make is that democracy is central to a strong and healthy public education system, but good governance doesn’t happen by accident. The practice and principles of effective and healthy governance require ongoing reflection, refinement and care. If you want to be strategic and proactive, you need to plan in advance and plan to reflect and adjust. If you do not have a plan, you likely will be more susceptible to the continual emergence of issues that will arise any given week. If you begin down the road of letting the smaller emergent issues dominate your agendas, then you will be unable to find the time to be purposefully strategic about the larger governance issues that truly demand your attention and leadership.
Public education needs you
A vibrant and healthy public education system is, in many ways, the backbone of a healthy and democratic society. While there is no question that the magic in education happens in the classroom, those classrooms require the care and attention of an equally strong and healthy governance framework. When you consider all the time and effort that go into decisions of boards of education, it is only fitting that we take the time needed to nurture and care for the governance that allows that magic to happen. Hopefully this blog offers some practical advice to allow that care to unfold.