There is a rather odd melody playing through my head these days. It is the theme song from the early 80’s blockbuster, Ghostbusters, and contains that rather repetitive phrasing “Who ya’ gonna call?”
I realize a bit of context might be in order. During the debate around the imposition of Bill 72, the question of who, exactly, parents should contact if they had an issue with their child’s education, now that the government was proposing to abolish school boards, was posed in province house. In the heat of debate, a suggestion was made that parents could contact the Minister of Education directly if there was a problem. If I am not mistaken, this led at least one member of the opposition to tweet out the phone number of the Minister’s constituency office.
Ultimately, and with much chagrin, Bill 72 was passed, and with it a new model of school governance came into being. Now, as with any new endeavour, there are bound to be growing pains, but if the early signs are any indication, I am not sure that the new supposedly streamlined system is exactly panning out as promoted. More importantly, there seems to be some question of where to direct concerns.
To begin with, there was the announcement a few weeks back of millions of dollars in capital expenditures on a variety of projects, including renovating some existing infrastructure and building some brand new schools. The Minister himself indicated at the time that these projects were in response to requests from the former boards, but the extent to which those requests played into the final decisions remains a matter of some dispute. Both opposition parties (perhaps not surprisingly) raised concerns around the lack of transparency in the process, particularly when it came to the choice of building a new school in a riding which will soon be contested in an upcoming bi-election.
Accusations of schools being built for political purposes is nothing new, to be sure. You may remember the Auditor General’s report a few years back that questioned the construction of new schools in the home ridings of Darrell Dexter, Stephen McNeil and Karen Casey. As recently as the run up to the 2017 election, a new school was announced for Spryfield, (Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire’s riding), despite concerns raised by some members of the elected school board. However, one would have hoped for a better start out of the gate for a completely new system of governance.
Another interesting little issue which has popped up post Bill 72 centers around staffing timelines. This year, schools all across the province were delayed in being told how many teachers they were being allocated for the 2018/2019 school year. There were some rumblings that this was due in part to the government’s wish to commit some monies to the implementation of the new inclusion report, but again, details were hard to come by. Regardless, schools have only recently been given their funding allocations for next year, and this has put us rather behind the eight ball when it comes to staffing. With other jurisdictions actively recruiting our young teachers, we may have wanted to have those particular ducks in a row sooner rather than later.
Speaking of hiring, there are also a fair number of reports arising in regards to guidance counselor positions being cut, or perhaps more accurately, reallocated, in the current funding fracas. Considering the aforementioned inclusion report and the accompanying spending announcements for hiring more staff, it would seem that these changes could easily counterbalance any potential gains. With the major issues we are seeing in student mental health in all areas, this seems like the exact wrong time to be reducing guidance positions in any school, regardless of funding formulas. What was of particular interest when this story first came to light was the way in which the government explained that allocations were the responsibility of the new RCEs, while the new RCEs were saying they were simply following the Province’s guidelines.
Who ya’ gonna call, indeed.
There was a time, not too long ago, when concerned parents knew where to go to question such decisions. Elected school board officials may not have always been particularly popular by virtue of the job, but by all accounts, most were accessible. Whether it was by attending school board meetings, sending an e-mail or even, in some cases, a chance meeting at the grocery store, there were opportunities for face to face accountability. In this new reality, there is already a sense that this is a thing of the past.
And for all that has been lost in accountability, we seem to be seeing few, if any, measurable gains.
It could be that these are simply “growing pains”. But this model was the government’s brainchild, and came with a very high price tag as far as its relationship with teachers was concerned.
Here’s hoping that, before too much longer, we see some tangible returns for that particularly pricey expenditure.
Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, May 17th, 2018.