The undermining of Bill-88 seem to be occurring in secret

As this session of the National Assembly comes to a close, permit me to add some news, observations and concerns to your recent Chronicle-Telegraph articles: "QESBA to meet at Concorde next weekend; Bill 88 on agenda? " (Oct. 7), and "QESBA meets in Quebec City to discuss Bill 88" (Oct. 21).

First, though, some definitions: the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) is the umbrella association of the nine English school-boards in Quebec. The two largest boards are on the island of Montreal: the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) and the Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB).

Bill 88 is a bill pased by the National Assembly in October 2008 that, as the preamble reads: "amends the Education Act and the Act respecting school elections in order to introduce various measures with respect to school board governance". It is good bill.
That said, lets take a look at two recent developments. First, the Montreal Gazette published an opinion piece by a school commissioner, who criticized his own board, the English Montreal School Board, on transparency issues ("Some kindergarten lessons applied to EMSB", Nov.15).

He stated that: "Almost from the board's inception, commissioners have sought to avoid public scrutiny or accountability to their communities by obscuring their deliberations under a shroud of secrecy via closed council meetings misleadingly labelled "committees of the whole" or "caucuses".

As a long-time observer of the Lester B. Pearson School Board, the EMSB commissioner's observation about "caucuses" and "committees of the whole" could well describe the LBPSB's method of operation. At Lester B., these get-togethers are called executive committee meetings.

The executive committee is the real decision-making body and takes place out of sight. There should be nothing secretive about school policy-making except for certain sensitive matters that deal with disciplinary measures of personnel which should be confidential.

At Pearson unlike regular meetings, the executive meetings are not webcast. On the board's site board under "Executive Agendas", there has been none in 10 years. A few sentences serve as mini-reports of the meetings. No real debate. It seems a lackadaisical attitude prevails. They don't even pretend any more - the starting time of the meetings "normally commence no earlier than 6:30 p.m."

It is this cosy country club atmosphere toward school-board democracy that produced the latest piece of work by the board. It is staggering. To appreciate this, we need to backtrack a bit.

When Bill 88 became law over a year ago, there was an outcry from the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA), and its nine member boards. The association showed little enthusiasm for this parent-friendly law, which calls for openness and from the preamble: "introduces new accountability rules".

Headings from QESBA's press releases provide an insight into their thinking. They screamed: "No to public election of Board Chair, QESBA to call upon its community to ask Minister of Education to reconsider universal suffrage ; Election of chair will be anti democratic ; QESBA will seek changes to draft law ; Community involvement and real accountability must be goals, not new power for Minister ; and English school boards threatened by Bill 88 election plan"... and so on.

However, there was one aspect of the law that they endorsed. It is no coincidence; it is in the first five lines of the preamble to Bill 88.

It stipulates: The bill provides that the council of each school board, while having fewer commissioners, will include a greater number of parents' representatives ...."
Indeed, in February 2008, the QESBA had recommended in its brief to the Forum on the Future of School Boards that the "Ministry review the number of elected commissioners per school board."

Then, from a QESBA ‘Media Advisory' in May 2008: QESBA said that "it was probably time to reduce the number of commissioners at Quebec school boards. Our Councils have more commissioners than most school boards across North America. We insisted that any changes ensure that our vast school boards in the regions have appropriate representation; the Minister seems to have responded." Exactly!

Despite this assurance, the LBPSB is now disingenuously attempting to bypass rule number one of Bill 88 and thus tampering with the main intent of the bill - transparency and accountability.

At the LBPSB October council meeting, chair Marcus Tabachnick (who, up to early last year, was QESBA's president) announced that the board would be seeking from the Ministry of Education an additional five (5) more commissioners.
This very proposal would defeat the purpose of Bill 88, which is to have fewer commissioners and more parent representatives. The Pearson board is attempting to circumvent the law with a motion which undoubtedly emanated from its secretive executive committee.

Furthermore, the notion not only demonstrates the total disconnect of the Pearson board with the Ministère de l'Éducation du Loisir et du Sport, but also the QESBA.
Regressive steps aimed to dodge democratic reform need direction. Here is a map :
The LBPSB must evolve by scrapping the idea of wanting more commissioners. We don't need any more commissioners. What we need are commissioners to show a willingness to democratize, and to represent their constituents with vigour on all matters when it is important to speak out.

Furthermore, if the public cannot see the executive at work, why not abolish it? This would be a small but significant step in eliminating school-board secrecy. Perhaps then, school taxpayers would find some value in their school boards.

It seems that the Montreal island English school boards methods of operation are already becoming a threat to the potential benefits of Bill 88 and fundamental school-board democracy.

Perhaps we should take Bill 88 one step further which was also designed to help increase school-board voter participation. Maybe the best way to dispel voter apathy is to have local school governance as the motivation to vote.

People would be more interested in voting if the outcome were to produce an effect that they could readily recognize. School boards and their decision-making are too detached from voters who are affected by their deliberations.

Let the schools run education, not the boards. To receive an education, children, after all, are sent to schools, not boards ; teaching and learning are done in classrooms, not boardrooms. Give the governing boards the power to run their own schools.

The present law provides for governing boards for each school and centre. The education minister should change the Education Act to permit them greater responsibility and autonomy to discharge their functions. Maybe that would bring more voters to the polls.

For now, though, as school-taxpaying citizens we must be vigilant and strongly support Education Minister Michelle Courchesne's Bill 88.

Chris Eustace
Montreal