'It engages the parents and teachers': Elected school boards returning to P.E.I.

The P.E.I. government has already started the process of reinstating an elected board for English-language schools.

The schools have been administered by various appointed bodies since the merger of the eastern and western boards in 2012.

In a news release Wednesday morning, the government said it had mandated the Department of Education to reinstate elected boards.

The government is planning consultations with Elections P.E.I., education partners and the public on how those boards might be constituted. A study of models in other provinces has already been completed.

Brian Higgins/CBC

"The goal is for Islanders to have a stronger voice in decisions about the operation of their public education system and more input into how we best support student learning," said Education Minister Brad Trivers.

The plan is to have the new governance model finalized by fall 2020, he said. The department will add teachers to district advisory councils in the interim.

French language schools are already represented by an elected board, and that will continue, the news release said.

Positive reaction

At the P.E.I. Home and School Federation annual general meeting in 2018, a resolution was brought forward to revise the Education Act and return to an elected school board across the Island.

"The concept of elected school board trustees allows for local decision making in our communities, it engages the parents and teachers," said Cory Thomas, president of the P.E.I. Home and School Federation.

"It also ensures that the rural area of the province that their voices are heard as well."

Thomas said the federation is happy to hear the province is returning to elected school boards.

"We are very pleased with this announcement and very pleased so far with our working relationship with the provincial government," he said.

When P.E.I. did have elected school boards the turnout wasn't great. Thomas said he votes in everything, but he never voted in a school board election because it wasn't very public when and where elections were taking place.

"I think if it was done differently I think there would be more engagement," Thomas said.

He said holding school board elections alongside other elections, such as provincial elections might increase engagement.

A troubled history

The problems for elected boards in the English Language system began in 2008, when what was then known as the Eastern School District went through a contentious process to close three schools.

The board was divided on the issue, and never recovered. Even one of its own members called it dysfunctional. Currie appointed a single trustee to take over the role of the board when he fired them all in 2011.

An elected board continued to govern schools in the western part of the province.

An education governance commission was appointed and delivered its report in 2012. It recommended continuing with two boards and lowering the voting age to 16, but the government merged the two boards into one and appointed trustees just days before school board elections were scheduled.

The English Language School Board persisted with appointed trustees until 2015.

The provincial budget in the spring of that year included significant cuts to school budgets. This led to loud complaints from the board, and the cuts were eventually reversed.

But the public fight prompted the government to shut down the school board. It was replaced by the Public Schools Branch and three sets of advisory councils, which were meant to provide an opportunity for public input into education.

The idea of elected boards never went away.

During another round of school closure discussions in 2017 the Progressive Conservatives, then in Opposition, urged the government to put off any decisions until elected school boards could be put in place.

The party went as far as bringing a motion to the floor of the legislature.

The Liberals continued to oppose an elected school board for the English system, but that party went down to defeat in April, opening the door for Wednesday's announcement by the new government.

'Hard to stay focused' amid all the changes

Opposition education critic Karla Bernard — herself a teacher before she was elected in 2019 — said all the tinkering with P.E.I's education system has been a perpetual distraction for educators.

"There's just so many changes that it's hard to stay focused on what's really important," she said, suggesting if there's another change it should be the last.

"That's why I think that this step [of developing a new model through public consultation] is really crucial. And I think that if we get a good model in place we leave it."

Bernard said any new model should provide an expanded role for district advisory councils, and that teachers be given some say in how the system is run.

"I think having a teacher's voice in there is having a child's voice in there and that's important."

More P.E.I. news