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School Boards in Canada: Outworn Relics of the Past or Champions of Local Democracy?



Within the context of an apparent transnational agenda of accountability, standardization, and increased government control of public education in many countries, including Canada, a growing number of constituencies question the legitimacy of school boards and argue for their elimination. Herein the authors report results of their pan Canadian study on the extent to which school board insiders (school board trustees, provincial school board association executive directors and school district superintendents) perceive this transnational agenda to have impacted public school governance in Canada in two specific areas of interest: (a) the relevance of school boards; and (b) the nature of school board members' connection with their constituents.
Journal of
Educational Administration
and Foundations
volume 25
issue 1
School Boards in Canada:
Outworn Relics of the Past or Champions of Local Democracy?
Bruce Sheppard & Ger ald Ga lway 5
The Principal’s Role in Regulating Students’ Use of Social Media
William Smale & Jason Hi ll 19
Rethinking Professional Development for School Leaders: Pos-
sibilities and Tensions
Lisa Wright & José da Costa 29
Depar tment of
Educational Administration
College of Education
© Journal of Educational Administration and Foundations, 2016
Dr. Paul Newton and Dr. Bonnie Stelmach, Ed itors
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Sheppard & G alway (2016)
School Boards in Canada:
Outworn Relics of the Past or Champions of Local
Bruce Sheppard & Gerald Galway
Memorial University
Within t he context of an appa rent tra nsnational agenda of ac countability, standardization, and
increa sed gover nment control of public education in many cou ntries, including Canada, a g row-
ing numbe r of constituencie s question the leg itimacy of sc hool boards and a rgue for their e limina-
tion. Herei n the authors report results of their pan Can adian study on the extent to w hich school
board insiders (school board trustees, prov incia l school board as sociat ion executive directors a nd
school di strict superi ntendents) perceive this tra nsnational a genda to have impac ted public school
governa nce in Ca nada i n two specic areas of interest: (a) the releva nce of school boards; and ( b)
the natu re of school board members’ connection w ith their constituents.
Keywords: school boards, public education, democratic representation, governance, relevance!
In recent y ears, publicl y funded (public a nd
separate) school boards in most provinces in
Canada have been consolidated into larger re-
gional s chool boards a s each provinc ial govern-
ment with legal aut hority for public educ ation
has sought to incre ase its c ontrol over public
education and to rat ionalize educ ationa l de-
livery within its respective ju risdiction (Brad-
shaw & Osborne, 2010; Flemm ing, 1997;
Galway, 2012; Lessard & Brass ard, 20 05;
McCan n, 2012; Sheppard, 2012; Sheppard,
Galway, Brown & Wiens, 2013). Coinciding
with th is shift towa rd increa sed government
control and school board consolidation, there
is a growi ng constituenc y in Canada and else-
where who question the legitimacy of sc hool
board s and who therefore a rgue for their e limi-
nation (Alsbury, 2008; Beckham, Klaymeier-
Wills & Week s, 2011; Berends, Bodily &
Kirby, 2002; Fusarelli, Kowalski & Peters on,
2011). It is within the aforementione d context
that we explore herein the extent to which
school board insiders (school b oard tr ustees,
provincial school board a ssociation executive
directors and sc hool dis trict superintendents)
perceive the trend toward centralization of
authorit y at the government level to have im-
pacted public school governa nce in Canada:
(a) the relevance of school boards and their
perceived impact on public educ ation and the
work of school s; and (b) the nature of their
connection with t heir con stituents.
Althou gh tra nsnat ional organi zation s such
as the Organization for Economic Coop-
eration a nd Development (OECD) and some
right-lea ning t hink t ank s have celebrated t he
respec tive provincial government’s attempts to
improve eciency and eect iveness (OECD,
1995), a number of rese archer s perceive these
changes to have ne gatively aected public
education by strippi ng loca l autonomy and
making it dicult for large regional school
boards to meaningf ully connect with schools,
parents and other c onstituents (e.g., Flem-
ing, 1997; Galway, 2012; Garcea & Monroe,
2011; Land, 2002; L essa rd & Bress ard, 20 05;
Levi n & Wiens, 2003; McCann, 2012; Moos
& Paulson, 2014; Sheppard, 2012, Sheppard
JE AF 25 (1)
& Galway, 2015; Watson, DiCecco, Roher,
Rosenblut h, & Wolsh, 20 04). To that eect,
Lessard and Br assa rd (2005) note:
...historical ly the school boards served as a
form of local democratic government and
they embodied t he commun ity va lues in
education... e reduction and regroup-
ing of school board s raises the que stion of
what will henceforth be “loca l”, as wel l as
about the de mocratic legit imacy of author i-
ties further and further removed from t he
schools a nd parents of students. (p. 11)
Similarly, Bradshaw and Osborne (2010)
observe that over t he past few decades there
has been a signicant eciency-driven amal-
gamat ion eort by provin ces resulti ng in fewer
school di stricts suc h that “school tru stees [are]
furt her removed from loc al communit y issues”
(p. 1). More recently, a school board associa-
tion task force report in A lberta reporte d that
there ex isted “myriad barriers t hat impe de
school bo ards from func tioning as tr uly robust
local governments…[as] the provincial gov-
ernment has steadily eroded school boards’ lo-
cal decision-ma king powers” (A lberta School
Boards Association, 2013, p. 3).
In concer t with t he pattern of school d is-
trict consolidation, provincial governments
throughout Canada have introduc ed school
councils compos ed of elected and appointed
members who serve in an advisory c apacit y
within individual schools. A lthough the pa r-
ents and communit y representative s who serve
on these school councils provide suppor t and
advice at the school level, in most provinces
they have little or no governing authority.
However, given that ma ny school boards a re
now responsible for a much la rger number of
schools spread th roughout a v ast geographical
region, there appea rs to be a growing constitu-
ency who perceive loc al school council mem-
bers to be their de facto govern ing representa-
It is within this previou sly described con-
text that Sheppard et al. (2013) report that
school board tru stees i n Canada feel it has
become increasi ngly dicult to meani ngfully
connec t with their cons tituents in eithe r urban
or rura l school d istricts. Ac cordingly, some
critics have arg ued that the public are more
skeptic al about the value of school boards and
raise question s about their relevance to the lo-
cal school commu nity and to public education
generally, even ca lling for the outright elimi-
nation of sc hool boards (B eckham & K lameier
Wills, 2011; Berends, Bodily & Kirby, 2002;
Fusare lli, Kow alsk i & Peterson, 2011; Rush,
2005; Sheppard et a l., 2013). Others charge
that in t he contex t of the cha ngin g global re-
ality and the concentration of populations i n
urban c enters, school boa rds have lost their
raison d´être.
at said, we live in i ncreasingly u ncert ain
times a nd public opinion has c alle d into ques-
tion many a spects of public education, lead-
ing to the suggestion that the focus on school
boards might simply represent the ‘low hang-
ing fruit.’ Expec tation s for education are con-
stantly shif ting , and more so t han in the past,
citizens and education lobby groups are better
positioned with knowledge and expertise to
chal lenge in stitutional experts withi n school
boards and min istries of education and have a
greater c apacit y to lobby governments to force
change. Based on a revie w of two de cades of
polling evidence, Guppy a nd Davies (1999)
showed th at public condence in Canadian
schooli ng had declined i n all population sub-
groups. L ater sur veys by the Cana dian E duca-
tion Association (2007) a nd Ipsos-Reid (2012)
recorded a signicant lowering of condence
in public sc hools and strong support for pri-
vate education.
In light of such an apparent shift in sup-
port for publ ic education, some scholars (e.g.,
Galway, Sheppard, Wien s & Brown, 2013;
Galway & Sheppard, 2014; Sheppard, 2012;
Hall & Hord, 2006 ) have ex pressed concern
that the ongoing consolidation of school
boards has mostly gone unchallenged. is
relative absence of public opposition is rat her
disquieting i n that t he resulting governanc e
apparatus cou ld result in a loss of bot h mean-
ingf ul community i nput and loc al educationa l
expertise in e ducational decision making i n
favor of increased control by prov incia l gov-
ernments and thei r ocia ls (Galw ay, 2014).
Moreover, the centralizat ion of control over
public educ ation by prov incia l governments
runs counter to the existing ev idence of a posi-
tive as sociation bet ween distribut ed leadership
and improved student learning outcome s (e.g.,
Sheppard & G alway (2016)
Hallinger & Heck, 2009; Harris, 2009; Shep-
pard, 2014; Sheppa rd & Dibbon, 2011). For
insta nce, Sheppard and Dibbon’s (2011) case
study of one Canadian jurisdiction found t hat
although the prov incia l government had a
large i ndirect eect on student le arni ng in the
schools t hey examine d, its eect was a lmost
entirely dependent on school district leader-
ship. Consistent wit h evidence from ot her
resea rch (e.g., Ful lan, 20 05; Leit hwood, 2010;
McLau ghlin & Talbert , 2003), they conclude d
that sc hool board-gover ned school distr icts are
an impor tant systems l ink between govern-
ment and school communities a nd are es sen-
tial to s ystem-wide lea rning. eir nd ings
also su ggest that school district le aders are
more likely than government actors to d irectly
impact school administrators and loca l school
eect iveness. Similarly, as a result of their in-
vestigation of sc hool boards across all Nordic
countries, Moos a nd Paulson (2014) conclud-
ed that “[school] boards emerge as proponent s
of local democracy in educ ation” (p. 173). In
light of these nd ings it might be reasonable
to expec t that more attention would be given
to the role of sc hool boards and t heir poten-
tial to f acilitate increased public engagement
in the del ivery of K-12 education (A nderson,
Leithwo od & Strau ss, 2010; Dibbon, Shep-
pard & Brow n, 2012; Fusarelli et al, 2011;
Miller, 2010; Saatcioglu, Moore, Sa rgut &
Bajaj, 2011).
Resea rch nd ings such as the aforemen-
tioned (a) reve al the positive eects of s chool
boards and school district leadership, ( b) raise
question s about the evidence on which provin-
cial governments are basing their decisions to
tampe r with school gover nance struc tures, and
(c) point to the need for a deceleration of the
consolidation project until further investiga-
tion of the potential impact s of dismantli ng
school boards can be undertaken in a more
fulsome and inclusive ma nner. e rec ent
Canadian experience on the restructuring of
school governanc e arra ngement s conjures up
a fami liar c ontradiction in e ducation – what
is variously referred to as the “research-policy
divide.” Researchers have long argued that de-
cisions about education should be tied more
closely to research evidence. e public ex-
pects political decision makers and their advi-
sors to refer their policy decisions to t he best
available rese arch (D eBroucker & Sweetma n,
2001; Honig & Cobu rn, 2008; Levin, 200 4;
Nutley, Walter & Davis, 2009; Zussm an,
2003); howeve r, withi n the eld of polic y stud-
ies it is generally accepted that re search is only
one of a number inputs into the decision-mak-
ing process (Galway, 2006; Galway & Shep-
pard, 2015; Levin 2004; Selby-Smith, 2000;
Stone, 2002). Because decision m akers bring
their own experiences a nd backgrounds to
bear on t heir prac tice, “t he extent of resea rch
impact is aec ted by the k nowledge, attitudes
and experience of decision-makers” (S elby-
Smith, 20 00, p. 565). Sever al studies con rm
the nding – now rea sonably well est ablished
in the educ ation pol icy literature – that se-
nior government ocials and their pol itica l
masters place more value on st a adv ice, pa st
experience, political and pragmatic c onsider-
ations and public opin ion, tha n on resea rch
and other forms of ev idence (Ga lway, 2006;
Galway & Sheppard, 2015; Honig & Coburn;
2008; Selby-Smith, 2000; Ungerleider, 2003).
Unfortu nately, senior ministries of education
ocials appea r not to be particu larly well po-
sitioned to provide education policy advice to
political deci sion mak ers either. e ndings
from Galway’s (2006) pan- Canadian study of
senior executive s in central decision-ma king
roles in Canadian educ ation ministr ies re-
vealed that les s than 40% of senior education
executives have a ny experience wit hin schools,
school boards or ot her educationa l institutions
and only about hal f of that percentage have
worked in a school or scho ol district environ-
While it is now widely recognized that the
connection bet ween res earch and education
policy m aki ng is more ambiguou s and circu-
itous tha n linear and direct, we still expec t re-
search to exert it s inuence, especial ly on the
broader long-term educ ation agenda – extend-
ing to the so-ca lled “ big ideas” in education,
such as education al gover nance. In our work
with school dist ricts we have observed that
school boards do a po or job of publicizing t he
important work they do. As a re sult the public
has a ver y supercial u nderstanding of school
system governa nce. In t he educat ion system,
the inter face with parents and the public
mostly takes place at the school and classroom
levels – not at the school board le vel. In fact,
JE AF 25 (1)
when the work of school boa rds is reported i n
the medi a, it is usually because of a controver-
sial decision, such as the closure of a sc hool,
an internal disagre ement or a tussle with the
provincial gover nment. It is t his ver y feature
of school boards – t hat they are fu ndamentall y
invisible agencie s – that seems to have enabled
the provincial government s to ama lgamate
or functional ly neuter their regional pre sence
without any signi cant public consultation or
A recent ex ample wa s reported in the To-
ronto Star. A midst ongoing challenges ex peri-
enced by one Ont ario school board, reporter
Louise Brown (2014), sought to determi ne
“what …tru stees do, beyond bick er at the
board table?” Hav ing interviewed several loc al
school board tru stees a nd parents, however,
she reported that at least some trus tees serve
as a representative voice for st udents and par-
ents. For instanc e, she cited one local school
council parent member: “It’s political will
that gets things done, a nd the [school board]
trustee’s voice de nitely helps.” Brown’s story
also h its on the de mocratic void that would ex-
ist in a sy stem wit hout school board tr ustees.
e following comment from a currently ac-
tive school board t ruste e exempli es the role
of trustees in advocating for students and par-
ents: “So muc h of our work is c ommunit y liai-
son and problem-solvi ng.... Without truste es,
the public w ould be dealin g with an unre spon-
sive [government] bureaucracy.”
In light of t he recent discou rse around
school governanc e and the t rend towa rds
centra lization of authority at t he government
level, we sou ght to develop a better under-
stand ing of what school boards do a nd the
extent to which school board i nsiders p erceive
their work to be relevant. In this qua litative
study we explore the perceptions of selected
school board insiders (school b oard tr ustees,
provincial school board a ssociation executive
directors and sc hool dis trict superintendents)
regar ding (a) the continue d relevance of sc hool
boards, and (b) the nature of their connection
with their constituents and government. Be-
cause ou r research participants were all insid-
ers, we acknowled ge there may be some bia s in
favor of school board s. We conclude, however,
that the perspectives of these insiders provide
important insi ghts into their respective roles
and the extent to which they p erceive school
boards to be relevant.
We collected data for t his Ca nadian study
through the use of a survey and focus group
interv iews. We developed the questions for
both the focus group sessions and the survey
through an ex tensive review of t he relevant
literature relating to sc hool board governa nce
and through in format ion gathered from three
consultation se ssions: t wo sessions with school
board trustees and superintendents of educa-
tion at the 2012 Canadian School Boards As-
sociation (CSBA) A nnual Genera l Meeting
and one ses sion with interes ted members of the
Canadian A ssoci ation for the Study of Educa-
tional A dmin istration (CA SEA) at its 2010
Congre ss. Dur ing those sessions, we inv ited
open resp onses on any aspe ct relating to s chool
boards includi ng, but not limited to, percep-
tions of school board releva nce, their role in
policy development a nd decision mak ing, a nd
their ac counta bility relationship wit h their
publics a nd government. Both the focu s group
interv iew protocols and survey focused on
school boards’ perceptions of their governance
role; thei r level of autonomy and acc ountabi l-
ity in dec ision ma king ; their relationship with
government, school councils, and other school
community par tners, and thei r eectivenes s
and relevance. We pilot tested t he sur vey in-
strument and made minor adju stments on the
basis of feedback from a conven ience sa mple
of six individua ls who had extensive experi-
ence as eit her a superintendent of education or
school board tru stee. Our focus group inter-
views were semi-structured t hereby allowin g
for minor adjustment s to the protocols accord-
ing to the specic g roup context.
e study oc curred over an 18-mont h pe-
riod bet ween December 2010 and June 2012
and included three participant groups from
publically funded A nglophone school boa rds
in all C anad ian prov inces a nd territories: (a)
school bo ard trustee s, (b) school dist rict super-
intendents, and (c) executive directors of e ach
provincial school board s association who were
also members of the Canadian School Boa rds
Association executive board. e select ion of
part icipants for both t he survey a nd interviews
Sheppard & G alway (2016)
was conducted wit h sensitivity to gender, ex-
perience, ethn icity a nd regional geog raphy.
For the sur vey component of our researc h, we
stratied our surve y sampling procedures by
three regions ( Western, Central, and Atlantic)
and designed the s ampling procedures to yield
a random sa mpling error of about ±5 % at the
.95 condenc e level. A total of 369 individu als
from across Canada (331 school boa rd tru st-
ees and 38 distr ict super intendent s) responded
to the sur vey. As well, we conduc ted 21 dis-
tinct fo cus group session s with sc hool board
trustees, sc hool district superintendents, and
members of t he Canadian School Boards A s-
sociation execut ive board. To increase t he
valid ity of the ndings, we triangulated d ata
collection such t hat eac h team member con-
ducted a number of individua l 60-90 m inute
focus group sessions (5 to 10 participants per
session) t hat occurred at dierent times a nd in
dier ing locations over the eighteen-month
data col lection period.
Our analysi s of the survey data is li mited to
descriptive mea sures such as frequency c ounts
and the calculation of mean scores using SPSS
(2014). For the preparation and a nalysis of the
focus group data , we were gu ided by proc e-
dures described by Meijer, Verloop, and Bei-
jaard (2002), Merria m (2009), and Miles a nd
Huberma n (1994). Each focu s group session
was recorded and subsequent ly tra nscrib ed
by a professional tr anscriptionist. To ensure
anonymity of each part icipant, pseudonyms
were assigned as require d. We analyzed t he
transcribed focus group data t hroug h the
application of a qualitative data analysis pro-
gram, QDA Miner (Prova lis, 2011). Using
this program, we coded separate thematic data
segments relati ng to perceived school board
purpos e, priorities and impact (connection
with constituents, relevance, school board-
government relationship, and impact on
public educ ation). Subse quently, we retrieved
these c oded thematic s egments and save d them
as sepa rate reports th at facilitated t he develop-
ment of speci c theme s. Also, this software
program allowed us to develop frequency
counts a nd percentages of respondents who
provided particular respons es. It is importa nt
to note, however, that all focus group partici-
pants did not respond to each question. A s a
consequ ence, our report ing that 55% of the fo-
cus group participants held a par ticular vie w,
for instance, mu st not be interpreted a s the
other 45% held a contrary v iew. In fac t if no
percentage is rep orted for t he contrary view, it
means t he others were silent on t he issue.
School Board Relevance
As prev iously noted, af ter a quarter ce ntury
of school distric t consolidation, school boa rds
in most prov inces of C anad a either represent
small rura l populations di stributed over huge
geographic regions or ser ve large urban p opu-
lations. As a consequence of t his sh ift, s ome
observers have que stioned t heir cont inued
releva nce (e.g., Beckha m et al., 2011; Fusarelli
et al., 2011; Hess & Meek s, 2010) and several
of our respondents shared a sim ilar concern.
For insta nce, when asked, “compared to a de-
cade or t wo ago, how strong and e ective are
school boards?” a distr ict super intendent com-
mented: “I think t hey are c erta inly recogni zed
as the body that represents the schools in the
… distr icts [in the province], but I don’t know
that they would have a lot of political clout.”
Similarly, an executive director of a provincial
school boards association in ea stern Canada
opined, “in [our provi nce], school boards a re
experiencing less and less connectivit y with
the commu nity a nd there is a lot of question-
ing about t he relevance of school boards, so
I’m not so sure that the community supports
us as they once did .” Yet another executive di-
rector from western Canada expre ssed a simi-
lar vie w: “In the rura l area s there is still that
very strong commu nity support for the local
school boards and their decision ma king, but
in the urban are as where most of the popula-
tion is, t here is not that suppor t anymore.” An-
other superintendent observed that his school
board wa s no longer perceived by the general
public to be relevant at all. Several school
board trustees held sim ilar views. As a matter
of fact, somewhat a s a summ ation of what she
had heard from others in her pa rticular focus
group ses sion, one trustee remarked,
a common theme [hea rd] across the coun-
try [is that] the local autonomy t hat we
had as trustees of school boards [whereby
we could express v iews] … reective of the
JE AF 25 (1)
community, has been interrupted by a ver y
politici zed and centra lized direction from
our provincial government s which [has]
compromise[d] qua lity.
Yet another trustee commented,
while society a round us has changed we
haven’t changed. So now society is more
question ing. Not that they disagree [with
our decisions), they just have high expe c-
tations of the system. So they are a sking
question s, and when we haven’t invited the
community in and engaged them a nd we
are sti ll behaving i n a way that was fo r a dif-
ferent time, that makes a d isconnect.
In support of the prev ious comment, anot her
when funding cuts come, you hear the
people [say], “get rid of those school boa rds
and save some money.” [ey perceive that]
we are [focu sed on] consolidati ng schools
and closi ng schools, and bu sing kids long
dista nces, and that is all they see us as do-
ing. ey ne ver see us as doing good thi ngs
related to learning in schools.
In spite of the respondent s’ previou s ob-
servations relating to public perceptions of
the wort h of school boards, when some of the
same ind ividuals were a sked if they per sonal ly
perceived school boards to be as eective and
as stron g as they were a dec ade or two ago, sev-
eral responded immediately with an emphatic
“yes”. Each acknowled ged, howe ver, that the
role of school boards h ad changed. For i n-
stanc e, an experienced trustee observed,
I have been i nvolved as a trustee for close
to twent y years and I am t hink ing in t he
past ten years…we have become more in-
volved…. Prior to t hat, we were more rub-
ber stampers…. e [super intendent of ed-
ucation a nd other d istrict ocia ls] would
present st u to us a nd would bring us ideas
and things that we were goi ng to do and we
would jus t rubber-stamp t hem… We would
listen a nd would talk to…our c ommunities
and stu , but now we [have]…a much more
active role than in the yea rs past.
Similarly, a school district superi ntendent
in the At lantic region ind icated t hat she per-
ceived sc hool boards to be more relevant today
than t hey were in the pas t:
I never worke d direc tly with a school board
twenty years ago, but just from the public
percept ion, you seem to hear mor e from the
school boards tod ay tha n you did t wenty
years a go and…they seem…to have a high-
er prole in my opinion. e y have become
more voca l with re spect to f undi ng of edu-
cation, fo r example, tha n they may have te n
or fteen years ago.
In support of her colleagues view, anot her su-
perintendent of education commented,
from the public perception, the value
[school boa rds] bring to educat ion…has
…increased because education in t his
province has rec eived so much focus a nd
attention, and fra nkly, increased fund ing
over the pa st ve or six years…. I think t he
public look s real ly closely at what sc hool
boards do. Not from a ta xation, money,
governa nce, etc etera, not from th at, but
from the servic e that they provide for their
Another observed, “e y have di erent pow-
ers, but their impor tance to the communities
is no less. If anything, it is more now than it
was previously- -to get that loca l voice!” Speak-
ing about h is experience with his current
school board, a superintendent of education
from British Columbia perceives the truste es
are strong advocates for loc al com munities:
Trustees, for inst ance, s erve on commit-
tees such as the special education or a First
Nations committe e…. eir voices are
brought to t he school board table on be-
half of t heir com munities. So…one of the
strong impacts t hat the y have is that they
bring those commu nity voices to the t able.
Respond ing to her colleagues’ comments,
a school di stric t superintendent from New
Bruns wick la mented the elimi nation of school
boards in that province:
[the government of New Bru nswick] elimi-
nated school boards [and as a re sult], many,
many school area s and school communities
now feel that their voice is not heard. ey
feel isol ated, everything is done from Fred-
ericton …a nd there a re school council s,
Sheppard & G alway (2016)
but they of ten can’t get people to ser ve on
them. So t his loc al governance aspec t of
boards is a cruci al component.
A superintendent from Quebec rejoined, “I
would sec ond that [ becau se] in Quebec it is
the only le vel of government that solely repre-
sents the E nglish commu nity – the only leve l!”
In spite of his stated support for sc hool boards,
he expres sed concerns about current public
perceptions of the value of school board s:
I persona lly don’t think that the people u n-
dersta nd what sc hool boards do in a lot of
case s. I think we have not done a very good
job in helping them understa nd…. We are
seen as … sitting i n the big ivor y tower,
and furthermore, they don’t know what …
commissioners [school board trustees] or
elected ocial s do.
e following comment by a superintendent
of education in Man itoba aptly summa rizes
a common per spect ive concerning school
board relevanc e articulated by many of our
study pa rticipants throughout all of Canada:
“I’d say when they [school boards] are at their
best, t hey are… ‘t he keeper of the ame,’ but
you know there are some boards where the re
never got st arte d.”
Althou gh it is apparent that the majority of
our par ticipa nts perceived scho ol board s to be
releva nt, it is equally e vident that bot h trustees
and super intendent s of educat ion recog nize d
that the majority of the voting public might
not share t heir view. For insta nce, some of
our inter viewe es repor ted that the wide spread
school board focu s on school s ystem re struc-
turing that has resu lted in the closure of hun-
dreds of schools t hroughout most provinces in
Canada has fo stered a negative public percep-
tion of thei r role.
Connecting With and Representing
In spite of the challenges re sulting from
both government-mandated school board
consolidation and school boards’ en gagement
in school s ystem re structuring, school board
trustees ind icated t hat connecting with a nd
representing their constituents are among
their most import ant roles. In fact, analysis
of the focu s group se ssions re vealed that 50%
of the school board truste es (SB) and 56% of
the superintendents of educat ion (SE) state d
clearly that they perceived school board s to
be a voice for t he local commun ity regarding
government policies and procedures a nd how
these get implemented in loca l schools. It re-
veals f urther that many in bot h groups be lieve
that school boards ensure that school pro-
grams and act ivitie s reect and mai ntain local
values a nd cult ure (39% of tr ustee s and 44%
of superintendents); the y believe they provide
an essential l ink between t he community and
local s chool district personnel who interpret
and implement both government and school
board policies (33% of tr ustee s and 39% of
superintendents), and t hey contend that they
act as a bu er bet ween government and local
community (33% of both t ruste es and super-
Analysis of the survey data provides f ur-
ther evidence of their perceived connection
with the community. Sixty-seven percent of
school board tru stee survey respondent s speci-
ed that they eng age pa rents and the lar ger
community in determin ing district prioritie s
for improvi ng student learn ing, a nd 80% in-
dicated that they repor t to the com munity
on progres s in improv ing student lear ning
and other d istrict priorit ies. In t he contex t of
each of the aforementioned roles, the majority
of respondents (superintendents and trustees)
perceive represent ation of and advocacy for
parent and commun ity expectations to be es-
sentia l trus tee roles. For instance, one school
board superintendent commented,
When the advocacy piece is well lived,
whereby they tru ly get what it means to
listen to the loca l community, under-
stand what the loc al com munity is saying
and bring that to t he board t able where
it doesn’t just stay local, [school boa rds]
somehow then have the ability to … take
care of a larger geograph ic area…[and]
their impact is huge…. Where that doesn’t
happen, I think it becomes very, very trou-
Another observed,
school boards...provide a form of local gov-
ernanc e that a llows for representation by
school groups, parents and so on in their
variou s districts so that they have a voice
JE AF 25 (1)
and input that’s usef ul in [the de velopment
of] p olicies a nd reactions to propo sals.
A number of trustees emphasized t hat be-
ing able to mainta in regular c ontact with con-
stituent s in the individual local schools is of
centra l importance , noting t hat local contact
allows trustees to bri ng loca l perspective s to
the educational decision-making processes
that might other wise be obfusc ated or entirely
lost. For instanc e, one trustee from New-
foundland and L abrador s aid that without
school boards,
You would lose out so muc h. You would
lose the pa rtic ular culture of the di erent
regions…that tra nslate s into the values of
that pa rticular re gion…. How can a cen-
tral ized power…[develop] policie s that
would a ect bot h Labrador City and St.
John’s in the same way? It is completely
ridiculou s!
Also, a superintendent from Nova Scotia ob-
served, “school board trustees are repre sen-
tative of t he community--the values of the
community--so the closer they are to the com-
munity t he more the board understa nds what
[that commu nity] needs.” Shar ing the s ame
perspective, a superintendent in Manitoba
[school boa rd trustees a re] the eyes and ea rs
of their local areas…. ey a re advoc ates
for the [var ied] cultures w ithin our divi-
sion, being a big geogr aphica l and socio-
economic ally d iverse d ivision. Not to be
parochial a s a board member, but to bring
forth issues through their constituents that
we [superintendents] may not k now other-
Correspondingly, a superintendent from Sa s-
katchewan observed,
the people i n Sask atchew an have high ex-
pectations that the [school] board is go-
ing to be able to help [with t wo major is -
sues]: [1] [Ensuring ] that their com munity
through the school provide s an educ ation
for the kids… and [2] preserv[ing ] the cu l-
tura l roots of rural S askatchewa n.
Overa ll, based on sur vey responses, 84% of
the par ticipat ing tr ustee s and superintendents
of education in this study voiced thei r convic-
tions of the merits of school boards and the es-
sentia l role they play as communit y and parent
representatives and as policy ma kers across a
broad spec trum that inc ludes school improve-
ment, strategic planning, the provision of sa fe
caring lear ning env ironments, budgeting , hu-
man resource ma nagement, the application of
technologies and innovat ion in suppor t of in-
school learning, student achie vement, etcet-
era. Although our study participants acknow l-
edge th at many of t hese item s are ma naged in
some juris dictions by a central government,
the majority of them c ontend that similar to
other local authorities such as town and city
councils, locally elected sc hool boards are bet-
ter positioned to mak e decisions based on lo-
cally identied needs. To that eect, however,
61% of our respondents indicate d that they
would prefer an increase in the level of public
and parent engagement in education.
Discussion and Conclusions
is study is dependent on perspective s
of school board insiders (superintendents of
education, provincial school board executive
directors, and local school boa rd trustees);
therefore, we ack nowledge this to b e a limita-
tion of this study a s some bias or self-interest
in support of school boards can be exp ected.
As a matter of fact, given the interpre tive na-
ture of the qualitative de sign employed, we do
not purpor t that t his is a n objective ana lysis
of the phenomen a under st udy. Rather, we ac-
knowled ge that the an alyses of the focus group
and inter view d ata are the rese archer s’ repre-
sentations of the study participants’ perce p-
tions and opinions of t heir lived exper iences.
Although we acknowled ge our methodology
limits generalizability, we contend that t he
pan-C anad ian nature of th is study and the
fact that such a la rge number of tru stees a nd
superintendents pa rticipated in t his research
serves to somewh at validate the se representa-
tions. Furthermore, we question the extent to
which other (external) ind ividuals or groups
would have t he knowledge or in sight to be tter
assess school board rele vance and level of con-
nection of t rustees and superintendents wit h
their constituents.
As is ev ident in this paper, many trustees
and super intendent s throughout Ca nada are
Sheppard & G alway (2016)
troubled w ith the increase in dire ct govern-
ment control over public educ ation and the
erosion of school boards’ decision-mak ing
authorit y. Equally, many are concerned w ith
the tendency of provincial government s to re-
duce the number of school board s and there-
fore increase the size of the constit uencies
that tr ustee s must represent. e y perceive
that the enlar ged geographic al size of their
school di stric ts and t he concomitant increase
in the number and diversity of the constituen-
cies that school boards represent have made it
dicu lt for trustees to meaningfully connect
with their constituents. Furthermore, many
perceive that their provincial government has
largely usur ped al l local control over public
education and singly control what shou ld be
valued. To that eect , many respondents e x-
pressed a belief t hat the major educational
decision s are made by politicians a nd govern-
ment bureaucrats without consultation with
school boards or their constituents. is, i n
some ways, may have cont ributed to i ncreas-
ing public apathy, low voter turnout for school
board elections and a rise in public ex pressions
of concern a bout the va lue of school boards .
Having studied the role of school boards
and school districts for s evera l decades, we
share t he above noted concerns. We do not
take t his position frivolously or without
considered thoug ht. Having listened to and
pondered t he voices of school boa rd insid-
ers that participated in this study, we remain
convinc ed that e ven school boards that rep -
resent la rge geographical regions contribute
meani ngfully to mainta ining a somewhat lo-
cal democratic element to public educat ion as
they prov ide an imp ortant conduit for what
people in local communities and regions ex-
pect from schools. One school t rustee from
British C olumbia provides a poignant e xample
of how this is mani fested in school d istricts:
We still do a lot of stu around program-
ming and things that a re unique and I
thin k in British Columbi a; [one of thes e
is] the Haida Gwaii immersion progra m to
keep kids enga ged in sc hools to ma ke sure
they gr aduate. at’s not going to come
out of central oce somewhere where it is
planned in Victori a. [It] has to come from
a local c ommunity. So there is still a role
[for school boa rds], but these [are] tensions
that have developed becau se of …centr al-
Some critics might well argue that parent s
and the public do not ca re that muc h about
school boards. e y are rel atively invisible
to the average ta xpayer except dur ing school
board elections, voter turnout is notoriously
low and, the media does not cover most
school board business. General ly spea king
then, people are poorly informed about the is-
sues add ressed by school boards on behalf of
parents and the general public. When school
boards operate eectively, most parents are
largely oblivious to the work of trustees and
distr ict-level professionals. St ill, the overarch-
ing impor tanc e of sustaining loca l democratic
authorit y for education in Ca nada remains. In
fact, it is this very feat ure of school boards –
that they are fundamental ly invisible agencies
– that ha s enabled the Government of New-
foundland and L abrador, as one example, to
twice restr ucture the provincial school sy stem
from 10 func tional regiona l school boards to
four and t hen to one, in less than 10 years, and
without any public con sultat ion or debate.
Althou gh there are some obv ious bene ts
emanating from the corol lar y eects of larger
school di stric ts (e.g., greater opportunit y for
intra-provincia l teacher mobilit y through the
transfer process, and argu ably, some adm in-
istrative eciencies), in our judgement the
systematic di smantling of the school district
model ha s been and will continue to be detri-
mental to e ducation in Canada. A s noted, no-
where ha s this loss of regional dec ision making
been demonstrate d so perfectly a s in our own
province of Newfou ndla nd and La brador. e
ideals of the sha red deci sion-making model –
where there is loca l democratic authority for
most deci sions about teaching and learning
coupled with centraliz ed provincia l govern-
ment authorit y for such thing s as curriculum,
assessment sta ndards, and school cons truction
– no longer ex ists in any mea ning ful way. e
drif t toward s a single educational aut hority –
from ten loc alized Eng lish school district s to
four large regional districts and n ally to one
solitary agency has disrupted the governanc e
bala nce and placed almost a ll substantial pow-
er over educational policy i n the hands of the
provincial government.
JE AF 25 (1)
ere are f unda mental problems wit h the
divest iture (or perhaps seizure) of local author-
ity over education by provincia l govern ments.
is is problematic for a number of importa nt
reason s, but the cr ux of the problem is this:
narrow ing the sphere of inuence in de ciding
how educat ion should be governed i s a de-de-
mocratizing process. It moves educ ation from
a stewa rdship model where t here are m any lo-
cally elected decision m akers making loca lly
releva nt decisions to a politicized model where
local i nuence is marginalized and where de -
cisions a re centraliz ed within the general ized
provincial polit ical m ilieu.
e consen sus vie w of the participants in
this study is that school b oards and their en-
abling struct ures serve to protect the d iversit y
of community and regiona l interests that is
characteristic of the Canad ian mosaic. If t here
is any merit in our participants’ expressed per-
spectives, it must be concluded that if we are
to continue t o enjoy good schools t hat produce
well-educated a nd informed citi zens, regiona l
authorit y over education must not only be
susta ined but a lso enh anced. At the prov in-
cial level, thi s principle i s as important today
as it was when it was articu lated 150 years
ago during constitutional discussions about
which aspects of civil g overnance would be
alloc ated to the provincial and federa l levels
of government. To paraphra se Joni Mitchell,
a well-known Canadia n singer, oftentimes we
collectively “ don’t know what we’ve got until
it’s go ne
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... greater centralized control by the provincial Department of Education. The trend toward more centralized control of Canadian education systems (Galway et al., 2013) runs counter to the evidence regarding the positive relationship between distributed leadership and improved student outcomes (Sheppard & Galway, 2016). In Nova Scotia, the concentration of power in the provincial Ministry of Education has hampered distributed leadership in several ways. ...
... Therefore, the findings point to the need for viable alternatives to traditional school boards. While research has shown that school boards make meaningful contributions to democratic participation in Canadian education (Campbell & Fullan, 2019;Galway et al., 2013;Sheppard & Galway, 2016), the trends toward the consolidation and replacement of school boards continue across the country. Although school boards ideally function as effective stewards of public education that embody collaboration, accountability, and transparency (Campbell & Fullan, 2019), the reality often falls short of this ideal. ...
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This article examines how recent policy reforms in Nova Scotia, Canada, encouraged and constrained distributed leadership in the provincial public education system. The study found the language of newly enacted legislation and policies encouraged distributed leadership by endorsing collaborative team processes for school improvement and special education/inclusive education. However, distributed leadership was constrained by the elimination of elected school boards, the reduced authority of school advisory councils, the altered duties of educational leaders, and the failure to enact essential supports for distributed leadership. Overall, this analysis found that recent policy reforms strengthened the control of the provincial ministry of education at the expense of local, democratic participation in education. The need for new organizational structures and processes for citizen participation in twenty-first century education was identified. Résumé Cet article examine la manière dont la réforme de politiques récentes en Nouvelle-Écosse (Canada) a à la fois encouragé et restreint le leadership partagé dans le système d’éducation publique de la province. Cette étude a trouvé que le langage de nouvelles législations et politiques a motivé le leadership partagé en encourageant des processus de travail en équipe axés sur l’amélioration des écoles et sur une éducation spécialisée et inclusive. Cependant, l’étude a aussi trouvé que des contraintes ont été imposées sur le leadership partagé par l’élimination de conseils scolaires élus, l’autorité réduite des commissions consultatives scolaires, la modification des responsabilités de leaders éducationnels, et l’incapacité d’offrir des appuis essentiels pour le leadership partagé. Cette analyse a conclu que la réforme de politiques récentes a augmenté le pouvoir du ministère de l’Éducation néo-écossais aux dépens d’une participation démocratique locale en éducation. Cet article a identifié le besoin d’établir de nouveaux processus et structures organisationnels afin d’assurer une meilleure participation citoyenne en éducation au 21e siècle. Keywords / Mots clés : distributed leadership, policy reform, school improvement / leadership partagé, réforme de politiques, amélioration des écoles
... In this approach, we also see a movement from within district factors to beyond districts factors that position districts as local checkpoints and sites of advocacy (Bedard & Lawson, 2000;Bradshaw & Osborne, 2010;Fredua-Kwarteng, 2005;Gaskell, 2001;Maclellan, 2009;Maharaj, 2020;Sheppard & Galway, 2016;Sheppard et al., 2013). These studies make a strong contribution to the necessity of districts in supporting local representation and parent and community voice in challenging policies, funding procedures, and power structures within districts. ...
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Ontario school districts are struggling to respond to racism in schooling and society. How has the literature on school district reform in Ontario addressed these ongoing and growing concerns? Through a narrative synthesis and a systematic literature review, we map and characterize the existing literature on school district reform in Ontario in the past 25 years. By combining systematic searches in main online databases with key journal and author search, we analyzed and coded a total of 95 documents. Framed through Critical Race Theory (CRT) and in conversation with recent studies on anti-racist district reforms in the United States, we conceptualize four approaches to district reform literature in Ontario: The Politics of Race Evasion, the Politics of Illusory Equity, the Politics of Representation and Recognition, and the Politics of Anti-Racist Resistance. The authors conclude with a commentary on the use of these conceptualizations in district operations and policies, as well as directions for future research. They also propose a potential fifth approach to district reform, The Politics of Regeneration.
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Across Canada there have been numerous recent examples of incidents where the political and ideological interests of provincial governments have run counter to the mandates of school districts. In this pan-Canadian study, focus groups were conducted with school board trustees and school district superintendents to examine the relationships between districts and provincial governments. Preliminary data suggest that the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda. We theorize that in a politicized environment, the values, reward systems, and accountabilities against which school board superintendents and trustees operate are likely to differ substantively from those of politicians and bureaucrats, thereby creating a policy environment that is antagonistic to local governance.
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In this paper we compare the use of research and other evidence in the decision-making practices of two groups of education policy elites, situated in different contexts – provincial education ministries and school districts. Data are derived from two pan-Canadian studies: Galway (2006) and Sheppard, Galway, Brown and Wiens (2013). The findings show that policy decisions at the ministry level are informed primarily by political and pragmatic factors, personal and professional beliefs and local knowledge. The role of external research is shown to be relatively marginal and confined to quantitative studies and performance assessments. Decision makers at the school district level attend less to political and pragmatic influences relying more on personal beliefs, values and experiential factors supplemented by the advice of professional staff and in-house research/indicators. Results from both studies demonstrate limited reliance on external data and university-based research – the latter ranking 15th of 20 influencing factors. Consistent with Beck’s (1994; 1997) risk theory, we theorize that education po licy making in both contexts is influenced by both macro- and micro-level factors, where choice of policy evidence is mediated by personal considerations and political risk factors. This suggests a weak policy development paradigm that is resistant to independent researchinformed evidence.
The focus of this book is educational governance at the local school district level seen in a cross-cultural perspective, which is based on national survey studies of local school boards in the Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The overarching research question that has guided our studies is: How are transnational influences and national policies transformed into local policy cultures when they meet the school boards? In all the Nordic countries, the municipalities are equivalent with the school district level. But the point is that school districts play a similar role as the interface between state policies and the schools. In this chapter, we briefly introduce our perspectives on the transnational influences, as they can be seen in the case of the OECD. This serves as a basis for discussing the need for looking into local conditions for educational governance that meet the transnational influences. We argue that policy borrowing should be based on robust and thorough knowledge of the context of the policy provider and also of the policy borrower. We also introduce the content of the book: the country reports and thematic chapters.
Power relations between state, regional, municipal, and school levels have changed over the past decade or so. This shift is clear from an analysis of data from our survey of school board members and chairs in the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden – and from country reports and thematic chapters in this volume. School board members also have exposed their new roles, tasks, and functions in municipal and political bureaucracies, government and governance, and therefore, new relationships between politicians and administrators, and between political boards and municipal administration, are formed. Also relationships between municipal policy and management agencies and government have been transformed so that in some cases, the traditionally strong municipal role in the “chain of governance” has been weakened or bypassed. Even so, we see that changes to specific influences and the translation of policy ideas are done on the basis of national or even regional or municipal cultures, habits, structures, and histories. Therefore, we see similarities in the ways Nordic systems react to contemporary challenges, but we also see differences. As Nordic researchers of Nordic societies, we find it interesting to look into the “facts or dreams of Nordic-ness.” We are interested in finding out if special relationships and understandings are preserved or newly constructed in the hurricane of international discourses, or are the external influences so strong, that our ways of thinking and acting are homogenized?
Canadians' confidence in public education is declining. We present new evidence, both attitudinal and behavioural, confirming this trend. More significantly, we investigate several possible explanations for the trend, including demographic as well as institutional perspectives. Our analysis finds little support for demographic shifts as an explanation, but we do find that confidence in all institutions, not just public education, is waning. We compare and contrast various interpretations of these findings, building especially on the themes of the knowledge society and the risk society. We interpret these findings as showing that Canadians see schooling as increasingly important.