Bill 40 and school board governance

Let me begin by stating that I firmly believe that every child in Quebec is entitled to quality educational services. These services, within reason, must be made available wherever the student may live, regardless of his/her economic or family situation. 

Every child of school age must have access to a school that provides him/her with the knowledge required to enable him/her to face the future with skills and confidence. Every school must have the necessary tools to meet the needs of each student’s quest for learning in an ever changing world. The intrinsic purpose of school boards is to ensure that ALL students are treated fairly, respectfully and in accordance with their individual needs and learning capabilities. School boards ensure that material and human resources in the public schools under their jurisdiction are distributed equitably, providing each student with an equal opportunity to succeed.

The present Quebec public school system, through the Education Act, is comprised of elected officials and school board staff, which includes board administrators, principals, teachers, professionals and support staff. Periodically, usually every four years, individuals are elected by their fellow citizens to be school commissioners. Parent representatives also sit on the Council of Commissioners. They are elected by their peers and have the same rights and obligations as their elected colleagues. The Council of Commissioners meets on a regular basis to provide direction to the administrators and staff of the school board. Among its many responsibilities, the Council adopts the school board’s annual budget, determines the distribution of material and human resources among the schools in its territory, oversees student transportation and maintains a constant link with each school community. Having elected commissioners actively present in each school community means special consideration can be given to particular needs.

On Oct. 1, Jean-François Roberge, the current Minister ofEducation and Higher Education, tabled a bill in the National Assembly that, if enacted into law, would drastically change the governance of schools in Quebec. Bill 40 – An act to amend mainly the Education Act with regard to school organization and governance – aims to do away with school boards as we know them and replace them with what the bill calls “Service Centres.” In the French school system, this bill would abolish school board elections as early as March 1, 2020. Service Centre members would be composed of parents elected by their peers at general meetings, staff members also elected by their peers, and community members appointed by the parents. In the English network, which would not be modified until November 2020, universal suffrage would be preserved but in such a limited, complex manner that the composition of these Service Centres would in no way resemble that of the present school boards. How would they be different?

Right now, parents can be elected to sit on Council by their peers as parent representatives or they may, like any other citizen, run in a ward election and become an elected commissioner. Bill 40 would limit to four the number of community members who would sit on a Service Centre Board. These four members (with potentially no children in the system) would be voted in individually through an election that would encompass the entire school board. Parents would hold the majority of seats, teachers and staff representatives would complete the number. The chairperson would be a parent but the official spokesperson of the Service Centre would be its director general. Members would work as volunteers, but would receive a statutory amount of $100 per meeting, with the chairperson receiving an additional $50. Parents would need to attend training before becoming members of a Service Centre Board.

All this may look interesting at first glance, but do parents really have the time to take on all these responsibilities? School governing boards already experience great difficulty in their search to find people willing to serve on them. Will Service Centres be any different? 

With the tabling and possible passing of Bill 40, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government intends to fulfill its long-standing promise of abolishing school board democracy and giving more authority to individual schools. According to the CAQ, the local school community has all the necessary abilities to do much better than the present school boards. 

I question the equity of the proposal made by Bill 40. Schools would return to the pre-1960s era. Schools in well-off communities might perform just as well as they do now. But what about communities where the socio-economic fabric is not conducive to self-governance? Where opportunities for fundraising are almost non-existent? Who would ensure proper pedagogical development? Who would provide special-needs assistance? Would schools in less favoured environments be left to fend for themselves? Who would dare question the authority of a minister who, in his wisdom, decides to close a school or build a new one? A director general would certainly not have the same freedom of speech as I have enjoyed in my role as spokesperson of the Central Québec School Board (CQSB). 

Lawyers and scholars in the English-speaking community are presently busy analyzing how Bill 40 does, or does not, respect Section 23 of the Constitution of Canada. Although I am not privy to their research, my experience of 32 years as an elected school commissioner leads me to remind the minister that “if it isn’t broken, why fix it?” The CQSB ranks second in the province with regard to graduation and qualification rates! The total cost of our 16-member school board is under $157,000 – less than 0.191 per cent of our 2019-2020 budget! 

In the course of the next few weeks, many stakeholders, both in the French and the English school networks, will attend the Parliamentary Commission on Bill 40. Some will be for and some will be against. A political debate may ensue, where little or no consideration is given to the number one priority of any school network – student success. 

Will Bill 40 increase student success? We would remind the minister that the CQSB has a 90 per cent graduation and qualification rate. We must be doing something right. 

Yes, like all things, the present system can be improved, but give us the opportunity to work with you, Mr. Minister. Please take the time to listen to the many arguments that will be submitted to you for the preservation of a level of democracy that has served this province well. TOGETHER, we can make things work better!

N.B. In the event of a court battle against Bill 40, the CQSB Council of Commissioners has voted an amount of $10,000 to be administered by the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA). Let it be known that this money comes entirely from the amount awarded to the Commissioners by government decree for their stipends and expenses. Thus, our students will in no way be adversely affected by this decision.