Firing board just the first step
It is difficult to fault Education Minister Karen Casey for her decision last week to fire — or should I say “relieve of their responsibilities and authorities” — all 13 elected members of the Halifax Regional School Board.
It is easier to quibble over where the minister, and her now one-person unelected school board, goes from here.
At the level of what the public saw — pitched battles over seemingly picayune matters like seating arrangements, members walking out in a huff whenever things didn’t go their way, criminal charges against one board member, an ongoing investigation of another, conflict of interest allegations against still others, backroom screaming matches over who said what about whose race — the board had become so mysfunctional it not only requires a new word to encompass the sheer, colossal absurdity of it all but it had also become clear to anyone who even glanced at the carnage in the morning-after news reports of its deliberations that the relationships among board members were wrecked beyond repair.
But there was another level, one beyond the media glare, where board members also operated, usually far more quietly and, often, effectively. They answered angry, worried, curious phone calls and emails from constituents at all hours of the day and night; dealt with individual questions and concerns among parents, teachers and students; and acted as honest-broker go-betweens between members of the community and the people who actually run the system on a day-to-day basis.
In firing the board, Casey eliminated that important democratic, representative function too. And, worse, offered no indication she has any plans to bring forward the currently scheduled Fall 2008 date for new elections and/or to deal with the problems that have made our school boards — which should be among the most vital elected bodies in any democracy — embarrassments and laughing stocks.
My colleague David Rodenhiser, in his day-after column on the school board firing, offered an incisive prescription the province could — and should — use to fix what ails school boards across the province: provide public funding so candidates running in board elections can get their messages out, increase remuneration for members to reflect the real significance of their jobs, and stop piggybacking school board elections on municipal campaigns so education issues don’t get lost in the media shuffle. (On that last point, I’d only add that we in the media should also resolve to cover school boards as something more than entertaining theatre.)
The education minister should couple a promise to bring those urgently-needed reforms forward in the spring session of the legislature with the announcement of Fall 2007 elections for a new Halifax school board.
‘Tis the season for a plateful of those bad news mumble-statements and furtive press releases politicians hope we’re all too busy shopping and partying to pay attention to.
On Wednesday, for example, Finance Minister Michael Baker announced a new austerity program designed to cut $10–20 million in spending to prevent the province from sliding into deficit by the end of the fiscal year.
“"We must keep our expenses in line,” Baker tut-tutted with barely a blush of shame.
You may remember that back in the spring when the Tories were courting our votes, the province’s finances were so robust and our prospects so rosy the finance minister’s smiley-faced budget included both tax cuts and nearly $400 million in new spending.
On the same day Baker was doing his now-you-see-a-surplus-now-you-don’t dance at Province House, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was issuing a late afternoon hello-goodbye statement in Ottawa, explicitly rejecting some key accountability measures from Mr. Justice John Gomery. Those proposals were designed to reduce the kind of political control over the civil service that allowed the sponsorship scandal to escape scrutiny for so long.
Now that he’s prime minister — thanks in no small measure to public revulsion over the sponsorship scandal — Mr. Harper is a lot less interested in allowing public servants to talk about what goes on behind his government’s closed doors.
A lump of coal in his stocking too.
But not in yours. Happy holidays, and thank you for reading.
Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College, is an award-winning author of five nonfiction books and a novel, Reparations.