Anglophone school council members speak out about proposed loss of authority
The New Brunswick government is getting some blowback from district education councillors over plans to reduce their powers.
Proposed reforms in the anglophone school system were introduced Tuesday by Education Minister Bill Hogan. The changes would remove district education councils' authority over superintendents and budgets starting July 1.
The stated intention is to have more uniform application of policies such as inclusion across the province.
"I call bullshit on that," said Rob Fowler, who became a member of the Anglophone South council in 2005 and served as chair from 2008 to 2021.
"The problem we had was funding."
It was difficult to provide inclusive classrooms because the budget was short $3 million to $5 million to hire enough educational assistants, said Fowler.
As a result, the Anglophone South council rejected its budget at one point, and that "caused some issues" with former education minister Dominic Cardy, he said.
"What voice is going to say that now?" Fowler asked.
Alex Morton, a former Anglophone East education council member, agreed money should be more of a priority than consistency.
"It's making sure the kids are supported and have the equal opportunity to learn," he said.
And $2.5 million doesn't go very far to maintain every school in the district, he said.
"There's a lot of people trying to move parts around to keep the ship from sinking."
Fowler and Morton are both disappointed by the proposed amendments and believe local accountability and input will be lost, such as the ability to set priorities that reflect community needs.
A district education council could decide it wanted to place a particular focus on math or literacy, for example, said Fowler.
The Anglophone West district education council was able to set two categories of policies, said Thomas Geburt, chair of the council — executive limitations and end results. And the superintendent had to report to the council at monthly public meetings.
The council also had a significant role in decisions about school closures, said Fowler.
In half of the cases when school shutdowns were contemplated, the district education council ended up recommending a school stay open, as a result of input gathered during its established public consultation process.
"That voice is going to be lost," he said.
There's no requirement to listen. There's no feedback loop. It essentially becomes one person in Fredericton. - Alex Morton, former Anglophone East district education council member
Fowler cited a court decision about one particular school closure case in which the judge said the minister was duty-bound to accept the education council's recommendation. By contrast, ministers have consistently said they had veto power, said Fowler.
Morton agreed the changes will remove any semblance of local control the councils have over the superintendent or the budget.
"Now, it's just blatant," he said.
"There's no requirement to listen. There's no feedback loop. It essentially becomes one person in Fredericton."
Ultimately, the council can only write a letter and ask the minister for permission to do something.
"We're setting up the education minister and ultimately the premier to fail in this situation because it's too much for one person to do all of that work."
In a way, the amendments only codify what has been the de facto system, said Morton.
District education councils are supposed to have control of the budget, but it's essentially dictated from Fredericton, he said.
Morton gave the example of a 75-year-old building that was due to be replaced eight years ago. The province decided to install an $800,000 elevator in it that nobody locally wanted, he said.
He would have much preferred to see changes go in the opposite direction by giving the councils a greater say.
At a meeting last May, about 40 members of the four anglophone district councils came up with their own recommendations to improve the system, said Geburt, but those were ignored.
The system isn't "broken," he said. It generally works well, but could use some tweaking.
Fowler, too, was hoping the government would strengthen the role of the district education councils by solidifying their decision-making powers.
Many times council members have felt a sense of futility and frustration, he said, trying to get approvals from the minister or Department of Education.
This will only serve to discourage citizen engagement in education, he said.
"if you're going to volunteer your time you want to be somewhere that's going to have an impact."
"Your time is probably better spent lobbying the minister or the premier," added Morton.
More say for parents
Meanwhile, Michelle Melendy is pleased about proposed changes for parent school support committees. She is chair of the Bessborough committee and vice-chair of the one at Bernice MacNaughton High School, both in Moncton.
She sees greater opportunities for parents to have a say at the school level because under the reforms, members of the committee would get training so they can help set goals for school improvement plans, she said.
The original proposal, released about a year ago, was to get rid of the parent school support committees noted Morton.
He's glad they'll be sticking around, but doesn't share Melendy's optimism they'll have much input.