Getting back to a campaign promise delayed by COVID-19, the provincial government is accepting public input in a process to choose a model for an elected school board.
“I think it’s really important because schools are hubs of the community. We need to make sure communities have a voice,” PEI’s Education Minister, Brad Trivers, said.
Government is considering a hybrid model of elected and appointed board members. This could address issues with the previous elected model.
The last elected English School Board was chosen in 2008 when the Island had three school boards: Eastern, Western and the French Language Board.
At that time, every three years, Islanders had the opportunity to vote for a candidate to represent their school zone.
There were 11 zones in the eastern district, nine in the western district and the French Language School Board had their own electoral system. The French board hasn’t stopped its electoral process.
Brian Deveau of Souris was one of the last elected board members to represent zone 4 in eastern PEI when it was dissolved.
As conversations and decisions about closing 11 schools became heated and eventually nine schools closed due to dwindling enrollment, the Eastern School Board grew less and less functional. Decisions on a variety of important policies, such as rezoning schools stalled.
“It wasn’t working,” said Mr Deveau who saw representatives fighting tooth and nail to protect specific interests of their zone at the expense of what might be best for a larger school system picture.
Mr Deveau said some members didn’t have the experience or qualifications that would lend well to effective policy or progressive visions of education for Island students.
“You might be popular or respected in the community but not know what’s best for the education system and students and teachers,” he said.
In 2012 the majority Liberal government passed legislation authorizing the Minister of Education to dismiss school board members.
After offering the board some time to prove they could become functional and move forward with making important decisions, then Education Minister Doug Currie dismissed the entire board.
In its place Mr Currie appointed three people to take on the duties of the board.
Since then, boards of the Eastern and Western School Districts, which eventually merged into the Island-wide Public Schools Branch, have been appointed by the government.
Mr Deveau doesn’t particularly like the idea of the minister or government of the day appointing board members because this could lessen an opportunity for back-and-forth accountability between the government and the board.
Mr Deveau suspects an elected board could allow for past flaws to come roaring back.
“It might be a better idea, as long as it’s done by an independent board or group, to appoint people with experience and knowledge that can lead the school board down the road,” he said.
Mr Trivers said the topics Mr Deveau touched on are challenges that will have to be faced while stakeholders, Islanders, and the government decide the composition of an elected board.
In consulting with the Home and School Federation and the PEI Teachers’ Federation, Mr Trivers said the concept of a hybrid model surfaced.
In this type of model, Mr Trivers said, communities could elect a representative for each Family of Schools while other board positions could be appointed by stakeholder groups like the PEI Teachers’
“I think that’s a really good concept and it’s something we’re going to consult about and see what everybody thinks,” Mr Trivers said.
Heather Mullen of Mount Stewart, president of the Home and School Federation, said she very much supports moving back to including elected members on the board.
She also agrees, a hybrid model might work best.
“It’s important perhaps to have appointed seats on the board to represent voices we don’t often hear at Home and School or when you get into elections,” she said.
“How do you have the newcomers of PEI and the needs of those students represented? How do you have the Mi’kmaq community represented on the school board?”
A hybrid model of sorts could be the solution.
Voter turnout is another challenge Mr Trivers hopes to work through.
In the last school board election, seven of nine representatives in the Western School District were declared by acclamation as were five of 11 in the Eastern School District. No more than 540 people voted in any particular zone and some competitive zones saw voter turnout to be just over 200.
Mr Trivers said some ideas under consideration to increase voter turnout include online voting, voting locations in schools and holding elections in line with the provincial election.
Elections PEI has not confirmed how, or if, all these methods would be possible or pragmatic but Mr Trivers says if these are options Islanders want, he expects the options can be sorted out.
Islanders are invited to fill out a survey and take advantage of other opportunities to consult about model options and ways to increase voter turnout until March 11.
With that information Mr Trivers and his team will draft legislation, consult further with stakeholders about amendments then bring an act to the floor of the legislature hopefully by spring 2022.
The survey can be found on the province’s website.
Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic