Diary of a Mad Trustee October 6th 2010 Open Board Meeting

Our Trustee Eden

Principiis Obsta…Finem Respice

Resist the Beginning…Consider the End

 This is the next in a series of entirely unauthorised reports from this trustee on board meetings. If this email has made its way into your computer and you are dismayed please accept my apologies and hit the delete key, which is of course what the delete key is for – that and the little known death ray function when the caps lock is activated. (Only for workplace deployment). I undertake to comment publicly on public matters but of course, this is not in any way intended to reflect the views of the school board. Any similarity to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

 The name of the game if you boil down the themes at our meetings is the persistent struggle between the elected and the unelected and all the diverse approaches  trustees adopt in supporting either side of this divide. If everyone is debating from a position of personal conscience, it is a worthy disagreement.

 Tonight’s meeting was a many splendoured thing so I am attempting to convey its content through responses to the questions which ran through my head as the evening unfolded.

 What should happen if our employees want to speak to us?

I think we can all agree we should not turn out all the lights and lie on the floor quietly until they give up and leave. And posting snipers on the roof in case anyone tries to get in is definitely out. However, by god – if these folks ask to pay us a visit and give us the benefit of their considerable knowledge and we come up with some dodge about management structure protocols (I think they do engage with their supervisors regularly) we would lose and so would everyone else in our schools including the managers.

 In ancient times, the Romans had a tradition. Whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was lifted into place, the engineer accepted accountability for his work in the most sincere and profound manner possible; he stood underneath. We could learn from this example. Too often, the worst effects of our budget deliberations never burden those in charge but fall on the shoulders of people who have no part in deciding anything. 

 The night of the meeting despite being told they would not be on the agenda, some of our longest serving bus drivers arrived with their presentation in hand. It speaks to their dedication in technicolour because no one- certainly not this trustee- would have blamed them if they stayed tucked up at home and just chalked it all up to experience. It seemed a pity though – and some of us asked at the beginning of the meeting if we could hear what they had to say since they had shown up prepared and confident the board would not want to miss such an opportunity.

 We hear from our senior staff; we hear from the government; we hear from each other; perhaps it was time to hear from the people who know and care about the bussing service more than anyone. The thirty year employee who addressed us explained in measured but firm language what it was really like to watch a fine service being driven into the ground while putting kids and drivers at risk. The detail was exceptional and for the first time we knew what the 20% cut to transportation really meant. Perhaps this will be a caution as boards continue to regard budget cuts to programs and services as a norm. How long can we tell ourselves the distasteful outcomes are unintended?

  Should we distrust the motives behind changing our Policy Development procedures?

The central feature of this meeting was a highly charged discussion about the curiously urgent need to add a section to district policy 1500 – ‘Policy Development’ http://bcsd79.civicweb.net/Documents/DocumentList.aspx?ID=1531 – a change which would explicitly allow the board to create or revise policy without going through the Policy Committee.

 As many have pointed out before, our board like all school boards in BC can if it must, revise policies or initiate the creation of policy as laid out in the School Act 85(2) a: determine local policy for the effective and efficient operation of schools in the school district. Of course, the School Act does not dictate how boards must go about this. This district has decided our policy development is best accomplished at a standing board committee which includes representatives from all our employees, parents, students, principals and the aboriginal community. Part of the discussion which seemed to raise the most rancor was the wariness some trustees and our partner reps appeared to harbour regarding the motive for this needless addition. What exactly made this change so pressing since the policy on Standing Committees (# 1100) repeatedly insists the trustees are the final arbiter of all decisions which emerge from any committee? We have been assured there is no covert purpose for all this – just a whim to pass the time, I suppose.

 Will consultants get the job done and for who?

 We have in our district many capable and experienced people – both in the union and excluded. Though we have to take back bottles to pay the bills we continue to function in the same old fashion when it comes to consultants. If the road is wet or there has been a plague of frogs, reasonable drivers adjust their speed but in our district, it is business as usual for some. Despite demanding every other employee group increase their workload to meet the austerity measures imposed by Victoria, our senior managers tend to follow a routine which is not impacted at all by the actual conditions which prevail. We hire contracted employees when we could simply expand the job descriptions of people we already employ and adjust their pay accordingly. Why in this age of screaming scarcity are individuals from outside the regular staff appointed to perform tasks which could and should be done by the skilled employees we already have?

 Consultants are useful -they come with a full range of attributes. Each one seems to be more godlike, qualified and flawless than the one before. The conclusions they arrive at are treated with reverence. How can the simple members of community compare their concerns and knowledge with the credentials displayed by the hired guns? Of course – each one is handed marching orders safeguarding the intentions already in the pipeline. They are there to confirm the decisions of the Ministry and its local cadre. This night trustees decided to establish a different practice which would at least compel some discussion at the table. Now – if our managers want to bring outside expertise into the picture, the board will be consulted first. This way we have a shot at assessing whether it is truly necessary to temporarily add another face to our payroll, whether the person/persons being considered will fulfill our expectations and finally give us the opportunity to provide our own damn direction – ones which we feel are more in line with community sensibilities.

 Will any of us be alive the next time we create a 10 Year Facilities Plan and if so, will there be any public schools left?

 Evidently, we are required to design a 10 Year Facilities Plan and have it in place to guide the care of our schools, review grade configurations, recommend closures and anticipate renovations and new building. As of late last spring, this opus was largely complete except for final decisions which still at least superficially reside with the trustees. We were told the report would be on ice until we had made final choices around school closure and changes to configuration.

 Therefore trustees (you know those elected people easily recognisable because they get paid bupkis but work hard anyway) – who by the way are charged with the responsibility of considering some damn gloomy outcomes regarding our schools/lands have yet to see this report. A report incidentally, built by a consultant hired without even a passing thought to our views on the direction his inquiries should take. This night –to finally share the conclusions of the district 10 year plan with the whole board as well as our community, we passed a motion requiring the senior staff to pony up and make it public so we can all have a look in. It would make more sense if we all knew what the game plan really is before we are asked to produce further conclusions regarding our schools. Unless this document calls for a trans-dimensional relocation or suggests burning down the school district to collect the insurance money (I certainly hope this is not a good guess) it seems a bit over cautious to have withheld the document as if it were the Ark of the Covenant.

 Buck Rogers of the 21st Century? (queue melodramatic music)

“All too often the education process is entrusted to people who appear to have no understanding of industry and the path of progress,” the European Roundtable of Industrialists complained in 1998. “The provision of education is a market opportunity and should be treated as such.”

You really have to cultivate a powerful knowledge of fartspeak when you read the stuff the Ministry is generating about 21st Century learning. Fortunately, my 5 years as a trustee has nurtured a wide understanding of this particular form of communication. I am proudly bilingual in this aspect and plan- in my retirement-to profit from this acquired skill by becoming a feature on the lecture circuit beaking off against the evidence for evolution, climate change science and the Holocaust.

The initial material tells us a few things about the glorious advancements being cooked up for our future kinder. In case you thought 21st Century learning means training our children to master ordering Doctor Who memorabilia on EBay while treading water due to rising sea levels you may not be entirely confused but it is so much more than that.

First – it has been established 20% of the students will never crack the test scores and as our grad rate has apparently plateaued, it is our duty to cull the herd and focus on the kids who have a chance of making it through the perimeter.

 Competition is the byword and as always will function to strangle liberal education without remorse. Evidently, our schools are not turning out enough narcissistic sociopaths to satisfy employers. No one wants our communities littered with human beings fundamentally hobbled by their lack of drive and competitiveness, their incapacity for pushing past others. If there is a ‘concern about competitiveness’ we are not told who is concerned or why. Families are urged to respond to the current lack of equal opportunity by turning on each other in a battle royale for the crumbs which remain.

 For all future  purposes when translating 21st century lingo into English the term ‘modernise’ will heretofore be code for ‘job training’ because god knows there is not a moment of childhood to waste in seeking wisdom, culture or civil concepts.

‘New forms of schooling’ which cultivate greater choice for those kids we have decided can be sculpted successfully  are in all likelihood private model charter schools– enjoying public money without any of the accountability school boards can bring to guiding and overseeing their operation.

‘Smarter Approaches’ – just a slogan which claims resources can best be redirected away from local government like school boards and into classrooms. Frankly – anything accumulated by destroying the structures of governance for public education will instead go to feathering the beds for those entering the field of education for the purpose of profit.

 Finally, we have the phrase – used again and again without any specific detail – personalised learning – sounds okay unless you are convinced learning is a collective experience and one which is enhanced by the relationships among teachers and students.

 With classrooms now unable to accommodate the most acute needs, the failure to acknowledge and address inequality and poverty and the never ending cutbacks it is hard to imagine what personalised learning would look like under an even more dogmatic regime – fewer teachers, more isolation, loss of academic programs in return for job training. In every way, this path will incite our families into seeking advantage only for their own kids and the devil take the hindmost. The only genuine beneficiaries will be the technology sector and the operators of a growing chain of private schools.

The role of the 21st Century design –  continue to pull back public funding, end elected oversight, privatise the care of facilities, rubbish unions ; the vision  – convince the business sector education can -with a bit of skilled slight of hand- bestow both profit and a suitable workforce. We just have to embrace rampant self-interest, cut the problem students loose, ratchet down working conditions and give up on our obligations to equality and democracy. When you can easily craft another initiative to avoid doing the obvious- why fund our public system so it can provide learning in a quality environment with everyone getting what they need?

 So as we are introduced to this sparkling new model for learning it would pay to read a bit of history (even if it does not add to our work experience) or frankly review the trajectory government support for public services has taken over the last generation or more.

 A fully supported teacher in a classroom full (but not too full) of healthy, well fed children can transform the world and release an unimaginable gift in any century.

 However, if no one is making a pile of cash out of it – what is the point? That was the last question…

 Your Trustee Pal


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