New Directions for School-Level Governance

By SSTA Research Centre

SSTA Research Centre Report #96-12: 21 pages, $11.

Introduction This report was developed by the SSTA Research Centre to summarize the results of a questionnaire and thirteen focused discussion meetings regarding preferences for school-level governance in Saskatchewan. Issues discussed include:
  • the purpose of school councils,
  • who should have a say in a school council,
  • how school councils should be elected, and
  • the supports necessary to make school councils effective and accountable.

Participants included Saskatchewan boards of education and conseils scolaires fransaskois, trustees from division boards and district boards, individuals from advisory committees and other interested community participants.

Support for Change
What is the purpose of a school council?
Who should have a say in a school council?
How should the school council be elected?
What might we do to encourage school councils to be effective and accountable?
Issues requiring further clarification
Appendix A

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The SSTA Research Centre grants permission to reproduce up to three copies of each report for personal use. Each copy must acknowledge the author and the SSTA Research Centre as the source. A complete and authorized copy of each report is available from the SSTA Research Centre.
The opinions and recommendations expressed in this report are those of the author and may not be in agreement with SSTA officers or trustees, but are offered as being worthy of consideration by those responsible for making decisions.


Introduction

During September and October of 1996, the SSTA Research Centre conducted a survey of opinions regarding new directions for school-level governance in Saskatchewan. This study was conducted at the request of the Saskatchewan School Trustees Association Executive as a follow-up to the 1993 Task Force on Educational Governance (quoted in appendix 'A').

The questionnaire was developed by the SSTA Research Centre following three focused discussion meetings in August, 1996. A copy of the questionnaire is attached as appendix 'B'.

A total of 204 questionnaires were returned and included as part of this study.

In addition, thirteen focused discussion meetings with a total of 153 participants were organized to hear from trustees from division boards and district boards, individuals from advisory committees and other interested community participants. 85% of the discussion participants stated they have children currently enrolled in a K-12 school.

Participants in the study included:

51 boards of education and conseil scolaire,

44 division board trustees,

43 district board trustees,

41 parents from school advisory committees, and

25 other participants including interested parents and educational administrators.

Discussion meetings included representatives of communities within the following Saskatchewan school divisions:

Battleford S.D. No. 58

North Battleford R.C.S.S.D #16

Buffalo Plains S.D. No. 21

Prince Albert R.C.S.S.D. No. 6

Canora S.D. No. 37

Regina S.D. No. 4

Estevan R.C.S.S.D. No. 27

Saskatchewan Valley S.D. #49

Estevan Rural S.D. No. 62

Timberline S.D. No. 45

Estevan S.D. No. 95

Wadena S.D. No. 46

Gull Lake S.D. No. 76

Weyburn Central S.D. No. 73

Indian Head S.D. No. 19

Weyburn RCSSD No. 84

Kamsack S.D. No. 35

Weyburn S.D. No. 97

Maple Creek S.D. No. 17

Yorkdale S.D. No. 36

Moose Jaw S.D. No. 1

Yorkton RCSSD No. 86

Moose Jaw R.C.S.S.D. No. 22

Yorkton Regional H.S.

North Battleford S.D. No.103

Yorkton S.D. No. 93

Questionnaires were received from participants who identified their community as:This report summarizes the important points from the questionnaire and focused discussions. Quotations and remarks included in this report summarize prevalent written comments from the questionnaire and main ideas repeated in the focused discussion meetings. The number of responses for specific questions may not total 204 as some participants did not answer all of the questions.

References to boards of education include conseils scolaires fransaskois.

85% of participants have children in a K-12 school

Participants were from urban, village and rural communities.


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Support For Change

80% of the respondents stated that the legislation regarding district boards in rural areas and local school advisory committees in urban areas should be rewritten.

A commitment must be made to sustain meaningful parent and community involvement. Participants acknowledged that a good deal of effort is required to develop and sustain meaningful parent and community involvement; but those who are engaged in their children's education are better informed and more supportive of the school. A change in legislation was viewed as desirable, but not essential to establishing meaningful involvement. A renewed commitment from boards of education, school principals, communities and provincial organizations was viewed as desirable. In the event of major restructuring to larger educational administrative divisions in Saskatchewan, participants indicated that increased centralization must be balanced by enhancing parent and community involvement at the school level.

It is important that we identify and support what is being done well. Participants stressed the need to acknowledge where shared decision making and involvement processes are working now. Establishing school councils should serve as an opportunity to build upon effective practice and to revitalize the efforts of all district boards and school advisory committees.

Roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined. Levels of parent and community involvement vary within and among school divisions. Participants frequently spoke in favor of establishing common expectations and guidelines for school councils for all Saskatchewan schools. Requirements for an effective 'system' can only be defined within the context of the broader vision for educational governance in Saskatchewan.

A 1995 opinion poll found that more respondents agreed (54%) than disagreed (37%) that the school board in their area was devoting enough time and effort to providing opportunities for parents and other interested individuals to have a say in the type of education provided and the manner in which it is delivered.

(SSTA Report #95-07 (1995) Public Opinions About Education In Saskatchewan)

'A revision of the legislation could serve as a catalyst for revitalizing this commitment, but is not essential to the process.'

'The further you get from the community affected, the harder it is to make decisions that are perceived as fair.'

Communities must regain control of the issues that limit their ability to do the very best for their children. Participants expressed frustration with being powerless to influence the major issues facing children in their school and a perception that government regulations have defeated the capacity of communities to respond. Even the most effective school councils would be limited by inadequate funding for education, lack of local commitment to provincial curriculum expectations and educational goals, and the potential dominance of staff interests over what is best for children. The reluctance of people to get involved is partially attributed to this sense of frustration of not being able to influence what matters and the negative financial climate that is encouraging one community to compete against another.

Changing the name of district boards in rural areas and local school advisory committees in urban areas to a common title is supported but there is no clear agreement on an appropriate name. For the purposes of this report, the name 'school council' is used to refer to the school-level governance body.

A new and more appropriate name should be selected for both rural and urban school-level governance groups. Fifteen percent of participants preferred the name 'District Board of Trustees' with the strongest support expressed by current District Trustees and other rural participants. Other participants argued that a new name was necessary to eliminate the confusion between district trustees and division trustees. Forty-nine percent of participants preferred the name 'School Advisory Committee' with the strongest support from board of education and school advisory committee groups. The word 'advisory' in the title was rejected by many who argued that the term is too limiting and only describes part of the role envisioned. Others felt that 'advisory' was too threatening. Thirty-five percent of participants preferred the name 'School Council' with nearly equal support from all groups. Most participants agreed that the title was not a critical issue and people would grow accustomed to any name chosen.

'We are being asked to respond to issues we have no control over.'

'If you create an institution which permits effective and meaningful parent and community involvement, a good number of people will beat a path to your door!'

72% of respondents stated that the system for school councils and their responsibilities should be similar in urban and rural areas. 76% of participants from large urban areas and 83% from small urban areas supported the suggestion.

Requirements for school councils must be flexible. Legislation must ensure that all parents have equal rights and opportunities for involvement. Participants supported establishing a common structure and expectations for school councils for all of Saskatchewan. Within these common expectations, there must be enough flexibility to accommodate a broad range of community needs (boards of education responsible for only one school, large urban school divisions with over sixty schools, associate schools, community schools, alternative schools, and school-based decision making). In several divisions, significant decision-making authority has devolved to the school-level. Changes in legislation should accommodate this wide range of needs equally well. Participants suggested having school councils establish their own constitution under the authority of the school board as one possible solution. In certain circumstances, one community based council might be more workable than several school-based councils.

'If legislation needs to be re-written in order to enable School Councils to work more effectively as a team player in the education system, then it should be written flexibly enough to allow 'creativity' but common enough to ensure a common direction or goal for both rural and urban systems.'


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What is the purpose of a school council?

Respondents stated that the appropriate role for school councils should be advisory in the following areas (highest score possible = 4): communication (3.38), school improvement (2.65), the school program (2.64), resource allocation (2.57), and school personnel (2.06).

District board trustees and school advisory committee participants were generally more supportive of higher involvement in these areas for school councils. Boards of education were generally the least supportive of high involvement in these areas for school councils except for the areas of 'building cooperation' and 'serving as a liaison to the division board'.

School councils should be advisory but have credibility. Participants acknowledged that there are legitimate roles for parents and the community. School councils might be reluctant to assume certain responsibilities because they may not have the time, information or expertise to address complex issues. While there are clearly some areas of authority that might be delegated to school councils, boards of education would remain ultimately responsible for all that happens in the school division. Suggestions of granting 'power' to school councils raised many questions and concerns. The connotation of 'power' is misleading and starts from a confrontational premise. Participants stated that the issue is not so much a question of power but of ensuring a meaningful and influential role that has credibility in the community. People will make a commitment to serve when they have access to relevant information and participate in making meaningful decisions. Involvement is not meaningful when one is consulted on a decision already made. The purpose of a school council should be to create a group of empowered 'stakeholders' closest to the constituent school, who can help shape the educational decision making process to best meet the unique needs of the students and communities served by that school.

Enhancing communication is the primary role of school councils. Parents want to know more about what their children are learning in school and want a greater voice in decision-making regarding their children's education. Teachers want parents to better understand and support their work. School councils can serve both purposes. School councils should be proactive by serving as the intersection through which all major school policies, decisions and activities are coordinated. As a forum for dialogue, where various groups identify issues and alternatives together, the school council would serve an important and credible function. Participants stressed the importance of developing two-way communication and supportive relationships. The school council should work with school staff to identify and overcome challenges that are getting in the way of improving education. Through listening, presenting information and speaking on behalf of the school, the school council would serve a pivotal role in maintaining a positive flow of information and being a positive force for education in the community. All types of parent and community involvement should be encouraged: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, and advocating for other parents.

'We would like to have a little more say in what is going on in our school.'

'A high degree of involvement is desirable but does not necessarily translate into authority.'

'The school staff suddenly decided to put a Coke machine in our school. For the rest of the year our principal tried to get parents to support the decision and the local board fought to have the machine removed. This went against what we believed was right.'

School councils should encourage continuous improvement to ensure that schools are the best that they can be. Participants supported a greater role for parents and community in school improvement efforts, establishing expectations and setting goals. Schools could be more open to the knowledge and expertise that the community's residents are willing to offer. School councils must focus on improving education for students. The needs of educators must be secondary to meeting the needs of children. Questions were raised regarding "What would a school council do if concerns are raised regarding minimal effort or inappropriate conduct by a teacher?" School councils could serve to shield the school from individuals who value their personal needs above the common good of the children and the school community. Participants stated that proactive school councils would move beyond the specific concerns of individuals.

School councils should be involved in program decisions. School councils are an appropriate forum for influencing program decisions at the community level. The authority of district boards to make decisions regarding sex education, religion and language of instruction should be retained. In addition, Saskatchewan's CORE curriculum allows for a good deal of decision making at the school level. Any changes should be assessed by asking: 'Does this promote good learning and teaching? Does it put the interests of student achievement first and foremost?'

School councils should assist in bringing community resources into the school to help the school fulfill its responsibilities. Participants expressed interest in this as an approach to link community resources with the needs of schools. In addition, participants stated that school councils should have a say regarding student transportation issues, use of the school facility and general resource allocation.

School personnel issues are a low priority. Community involvement in staffing procedures varies greatly from school to school. While community involvement in staff selection was viewed as desirable, participants recognized that legal and contractual requirements make this a school division responsibility.

A 1995 opinion poll found that six in ten parents of school aged children (60%) believe they have an adequate say in school decisions that affect their child. One in three (33%) do not.

(SSTA Report #95-07 (1995) Public Opinions About Education In Saskatchewan)

'Schools work best when communities and schools work together.'

'As a parent, you are ultimately responsible for your child's education.'

'As a parent you have to recognize your place in the school system and respect the needs of staff and the general good of the school. No individual should be allowed to come in and destroy the good will that exists!'


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Who should have a say in a school council?

The democratic process of school councils should include representatives of: parents (3.77), community representatives (3.00), teachers (2.83), students (2.35), and other staff (2.30).

School councils should work to involve the whole community. Nearly all participants supported council membership including all parents with children attending the school and all citizens resident in the school attendance area. Other participants supported including teachers, high school students, and other staff to reflect the school community. Some participants could not envision a school council with staff or student participation. Parent and citizen representatives should be elected annually for alternating terms. The school principal, staff and student representatives should be elected by their peers and participate as non-voting participants on the school council. As a majority of citizens do not have children in schools, it was viewed to be important that community representation be included on a school council to encourage understanding and support for the school. Community representatives on councils might include a division board representative or a parish priest in Catholic schools. Council constitutions should be flexible enough to allow any group that plays a role in supporting the education of children to be engaged in the work of a school council.

58% of respondents stated that the school principal should not be a voting member of a school council.

The principal is the CEO of the school council. Positive attitudes and effective leadership are necessary to encourage and maintain parent and community support for schools. Participants stated that the principal's role was strategic to establishing an effective school council. While a majority of respondents stated that the principal should not be a voting member, he/she should participate in all meetings and serve as a resource to facilitate the effective operation of the school council. A wise principal would use the council as a reference group to test ideas and would listen carefully to its recommendations.

'Those affected by decisions should have a voice in influencing the decision.'

'Teachers need to be involved to provide their views on what they see in the classroom - parents to provide their views on what they see as necessary for their children.'

76% of respondents stated that school councils should attempt to operate on a basis of building team consensus rather than voting.

School councils serve as a model of democratic shared decision making for the school and community. A consensus building approach was viewed as more desirable than simply voting on issues. Participants encouraged a return to the ideals of the democratic system when voting is necessary. Concerns were raised by participants with having staff and students at the table. Approaches and involvement might have to vary in different situations. If a school council were presented with a staffing concern - staff members and students might prefer to limit their involvement. Some participants suggested that questions regarding the expenditure of money should be decided by voting.

'If it takes a whole village to educate a child; let us build a village worthy of our children.'


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How should the school council be elected?

56% of respondents stated that elections should be for a three year term. 37% supported a two year term.

A system of rotating elections is necessary for continuity in leadership. Participants expressed strong support for a two or three year term to provide individuals with the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills necessary for effective leadership. A system of rotating elections should be organised to avoid having all new members on a school council.

87% of respondents supported the development of regulations and guidelines to direct the election process.

69% of respondents supported the need for a formal system of voting with secret ballots.

56% of respondents supported electing representatives at a public meeting.

The election process must have clearly defined regulations and guidelines. Participants supported an election system with secret ballots somewhat less formal than the current system for electing district board trustees. Participants stressed the need for a cost-effective and public process with clearly defined regulations and guidelines. Many participants preferred a process organised under the authority of the school division where elections might be conducted at a general meeting that is open to the public, well advertised and conducted within provincial defined regulations. Participants who stated that a formal system of voting was not necessary, expressed strong support for elections at a public meeting. The majority of participants who supported a formal system of voting were evenly split in opinion regarding elections at a public meeting. Participants from large urban communities were most likely to support a system of elections at a public meeting. Rural participants were more inclined to oppose a system of elections at a public meeting. Many participants suggested that funds saved by moving to a less formal election process would be better used helping students in classrooms. Most participants agreed that the greater the authority of a school council, the greater is the need to formalize the election process under the Local Government Elections Act.

Elections should be for three year rotating terms

Regulations and guidelines for elections should be clearly defined

70% of respondents stated they were opposed to allowing school boards to appoint school council representatives to fill short term vacancies.

School council representatives should be democratically elected. Participants expressed concern regarding any move to appoint members to school councils. The democratic process should be encouraged and allowed to work. Boards of education might influence the make-up of a council by appointing members. The constitution of school councils should allow processes to address situations where sufficient interest does not exist to fill vacancies or where special consideration is deemed necessary to represent minority views. School councils should consult with community groups and encourage broader participation. Some participants suggested that the board of education should be allowed to appoint representatives for short term vacancies or allow the position to remain open for six months or less.

Democratically elected school councils


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What might we do to encourage school councils to be effective and accountable?

Participants indicated highest support (3.40 of a possible 4) for school council training and inservice programs offered by the school division and provincial organizations.

Training and inservice opportunities are essential if school councils are to be effective. Special efforts will be necessary to implement school councils and there must also be an on-going commitment to sustain effective practice. The human and financial costs of supporting school councils will require a major commitment from school divisions. In addition, provincial organizations have information and expertise that will be necessary for effective implementation of school councils. Participants stated that developing new understandings and skills for all school principals should be a priority.

Participants supported developing common measures and indicators of school council effectiveness (3.00 of a possible 4).

A system of continuous improvement is desirable. Participants stated that councils should be aware of how other councils operate and should also use self assessment processes. Tools and processes should be developed for school councils that encourage continuous improvement.

Participants supported (2.94 of a possible 4) developing dispute resolution mechanisms.

Differences should be resolved within the school community. Participants acknowledged that differences or conflicts would occur. When differences must be resolved within the school community, better long term relationships and processes are established. Participants suggested that school boards should develop policies and procedures for resolving differences.

'Decision-making must be shared, but shared decision-making must be learned.'

'What are the expectations for teaching and learning in this community?'

Participants supported making boards of education responsible for school councils (2.85 of a possible 4).

98% of respondents supported the suggestion that a handbook describing school council responsibilities and operating guidelines be developed.

Roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined. Participants expressed strong support for a handbook that clearly outlines the role and responsibilities of boards of education, the school council and the principal. Participants stated there is a general lack of information about what local boards and school advisory committees can do and this vagueness is the greatest weakness now. If school councils are going to assume a meaningful role, boards of education will have to develop enabling policies and guidelines, decentralize appropriate responsibilities, and establish forums to ensure ongoing and effective two-way communication.

The school principal should be responsible to the school council for implementation of directives within its scope of authority (2.78 of a possible 4).

The principal is accountable to the board of education. Participants supported the importance of having the principal and school council work together but acknowledged that an administrative line of accountability exists.

Including school councils in the SSTA received support of 2.68 of a possible 4.

Does the mission of the SSTA include school councils? Opinions were divided on whether school councils should be included in the SSTA. The question of who should provide services to and speak on behalf of school councils had no clear consensus. Some participants suggested that structures should be established within the SSTA to include parent and community voices but not staff and students. Others suggested that a new organization might emerge to better serve the interests of school councils. Participants agreed that to acquire the necessary services and support, school councils will have to establish regional and provincial networks.

'Boards of education should lead by example. Their authority can be delegated but responsibility remains with the board.'

'There must be a clear distinction between professional responsibilities and social, political, or governance responsibilities.'

'Gray areas will create all kinds of dissension and breakdowns in communication. We cannot afford to do this half-way - it needs to be thorough and well defined.'

Greatest support for including school councils in the SSTA was expressed by district board trustees (3.45 of a possible 4) and school advisory committee participants (2.81). Board of education support for including school councils in the SSTA (an average of 2.39) was divided along a continuum with 39% of participating boards indicating low support (1.00) and 29% highly supportive (4.00).

The level of financial support stated for providing school councils with an operating budget for communications and seminars included:

15% Less than $500.

38% $501. to $1,000.

47% More than $1,000.

Support for school councils requires financial and human resources. Participants recognized that the establishment of school councils would place additional demands on school division budgets and school administrators' time. Boards of education indicated the greatest support for providing an operating budget of more than $1,000. (27 boards out of 45 responding). As much as possible, the establishment of school councils should be cost neutral to students. While a majority of participants stated that school councils should have an operating budget, they encouraged using available resources in new ways to support the establishment and on-going work of school councils. Educational administrators expressed concern that establishment of school councils would create extra demands on their time and politicize the principal's role.

Boards of education were divided over the future role of school councils in the SSTA

School councils require an operating budget


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Issues Requiring Further Clarification

The SSTA Research Centre questionnaire and the focused discussion meetings assisted in clarifying a shared vision for revitalizing parent and community involvement, but a number of topics require further clarification. Issues for further clarification include:

A new and more appropriate name should be selected for both rural and urban school-level governance groups.

The common structure and expectations for school councils should be established.

Election regulations and guidelines for school councils should be established.

A handbook describing school council responsibilities and operating guidelines should be developed.

A training and inservice program for school councils should be developed and offered.

Professional development for principals should include the expectations and competencies for working with school councils.

The role of school councils within the SSTA should be clarified.

The 1993 Task Force on Educational Governance recommended that elected school-level governance bodies be established throughout the province. The exact nature of these bodies, their basic duties and the method by which they would be elected was not determined. In June of 1996, boards of education reaffirmed their support for this recommendation. As a follow-up, the SSTA Executive established a consultation process and a School-Level Governance Working Committee to examine and provide direction for a renewed system of school-level governance for Saskatchewan. SSTA Research Centre Report #96-13, School Councils: The Saskatchewan Vision presents the final report and recommendations of the Working Committee.


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Appendix A

from the 1993 Task Force on Educational Governance

Families want to have a say in the education their children receive. They are concerned about overall policies, but also about the day-to-day details of their child's educational experience. Taxpayers, too, want to have input. Many taxpayers are concerned both about educational quality and about the level of local taxation. Presently, at the division level, citizens have input to educational governance through boards of education. At the local level, they have input through district boards in rural areas and local school advisory committees in urban areas.

The process used to elect members of district boards differs from the process used to determine members of local school advisory committees. Members of district boards are elected by the public. There is no systematic process for determining members of local school advisory committees. In some places they are selected by the principal, in others elected by a body such as the Home and School Association or elected at an annual meeting.

In theory, division boards of education are fiscal, policy-setting bodies; district boards provide advice about day-to-day operations of schools. In practice, there is little consistency across the province. For example, in one school division the board of education may determine bus routes, in another the district board. In other school divisions, staff such as the director of education or the school principal deal with bus routes and policy-makers do not address this issue at all.

In some divisions, the division board deals with day-to-day aspects of school administration, while in others, this is completely the responsibility of the district board. The Task Force on Educational Governance recognises the need for flexibility to respond to local needs but also recognises that there is a need for a consistent basic division of responsibilities between division-level and local-level governance structures.

The issue of local control is made more complicated by the existence of local school advisory committees in urban areas. Local school advisory committees do not exactly parallel district boards. The members of school advisory committees are appointed/elected through a different process. In urban areas, there is provision for one local school advisory committee for each school. In rural areas, there may be more than one school within the boundaries of a district board. Moreover, the responsibilities of the local school advisory committee vary from one school to another. It depends very much on board of education policy, the views of the school principal, and the interests and assertiveness of the members of the local school advisory committee.

The establishment of new larger school divisions would almost certainly affect the division of responsibilities. A board that administers 20 schools will find it much harder to deal with the day-to-day aspects of school operation than a board that administers five or six schools.

There is no particular reason why the structure used for local representation should differ between urban and rural areas. The differences which presently exist developed as a result of evolution, not as the result of planned, deliberate decisions. Any changes which occur should bring about greater consistency across the province, not perpetuate the present differences.

In order to provide for local input and local decision-making, local governance structures should be established that are:

school-level;

elected;

universal (the same in urban and rural areas);

responsible for the same minimum core of responsibilities across the province;

concerned with higher order activities such as goal setting and school improvement; and

advisory.

The Task Force on Educational Governance considered the exact nature of these school-level governance bodies and the division of duties between them and boards of education at some length. However, it was decided that provision should be made for additional input and discussion. The Task Force determined that school-level governance bodies should have the characteristics outlined above but left matters such as specific duties, composition and election of members for further consideration.

Therefore, the Task Force on Educational Governance has determined that;

Recommendation #5:

In both rural and urban school divisions, elected school-level governance bodies be established for each school to provide for local control and local decision-making.


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