Quebec's school board reforms include 'compromises' for English system

The Coalition Avenir Québec government's proposed legislation to reform the province's school boards includes exceptions for the province's English-language community.

The bill, tabled Tuesday at the National Assembly, will transform school boards into "service centres."

In the French-language system, those centres will be run by a 16-person board of directors, comprised of parents, teachers and other members of the community.

Those boards will be appointed, not elected.

Anglophone Quebecers, however, will be able to vote for all but four members of the board of directors at the service centres. The four unelected members will be representatives from the school system.

"We made compromises with the anglophone community," said Premier François Legault.

"I think it's a good compromise for everybody."

Anglo rights groups have argued the elimination of elected school boards would violate anglophones' constitutional right to control their own institutions and defend their own interests, on issues such as the province's history curriculum and the religious symbols ban.

Legault acknowledged Tuesday the charter rights of Quebec's English minority had been considered in drafting the legislation.

The long-awaited school reform bill, entitled  "An Act to amend mainly the education act with regard to school organization and governance," totals 92 pages.

Much of the bill is devoted to how the government will meet its obligations to anglophones. The word "English" is used 149 times.

The legislation comes as the English Montreal School Board risks being put under trusteeship.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said, as it stands, there's "too much bureaucracy, too much petty politics at the expense of our kids and too much money taken from the schools."

"When I'm saying that we have too much petty politics at the expense of our children, I'm thinking about the EMSB," he said.

Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC

EMSB chair Angela Mancini said Roberge is "completely wrong," and that changing a structure doesn't change the possibility of having difficulties within an organization. 

Mancini said despite the exceptions made for English-language school boards, the bill presents "a loss in terms of democracy," especially because it's unclear who exactly will be allowed to run to sit on the service centre's board. 

More power to education minister

The abolition of school boards was a key Coalition Avenir Québec promise before the last election. The CAQ said doing so will allow the province to better provide resources directly to schools and students. 

To that end, the legislation gives more power to the province's education minister.

In particular, it allows for the minister to "impose the amalgamation of services, determine objectives or targets for the administration, organization or operation of one school service centre or all such centres, more easily obtain students' results on the examinations."

The CAQ government has already made a habit of forcing the hand of school boards. Earlier this year, it forced the transfer of two English school buildings to the overcrowded French sector.

It also ordered school boards to enforce its ban on the wearing of religious symbols by public school teachers, despite the boards' stated resistance. 

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

Russell Copeman, executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA), said his organization will be studying the proposed legislation closely.

Copeman wants to know what powers the service centres will have and how exactly the centres will be controlled.

"It's very clear that the English-speaking community insists on a certain degree of independence in the administration of our school system, and a certain degree of community control. So those will be the two criteria that we look at," he said.

Christopher Skeete, the CAQ's parliamentary secretary responsible for relations with the English-speaking community, argues the reforms will, in fact, give more control to the community.

"As it is now, the community will maintain control, and they will benefit from a revamped governance," he said.

'Take your time'

Copeman, a former Liberal MNA, had a message for the government.

"Take your time in adopting this legislation," Copeman said.

He said there needs to be evidence that reform will make things better for students before making a shift this significant. 

Copeman still believes firmly that everyone should have a right to vote for their school board representatives.

"We have said from the beginning that we believed that elections should be preserved for all Quebecers, and we maintain that that's the case — that the erosion of school democracy is not a positive thing for Quebec."