Nova Scotia

Education advocates disappointed in N.S. plan to improve school advisory councils

Some education advocates in Nova Scotia say they were hoping for bigger changes from the provincial government’s recent announcement aimed at giving the public more say about what happens in schools.

On Friday, officials revealed plans to offer more support to school advisory councils, or SACs, over the next year to give families more access to schools.

The changes include grants of up to $10,000 for SACs that develop innovative projects to support student well-being and more opportunities for input on how schools funds are used, among other changes. There will also be an annual conference for SAC chairs — the date of the first meeting has to be announced — on common school problems.

The province’s Progressive Conservatives said during the 2021 election campaign they would modernize the school board model. But they stopped short of promising to reinstate the previous system of English language schools boards that was disbanded by the Liberal government in 2018.

Elected school boards were replaced with regional centres for education staffed by unelected officials. School advisory councils made up of volunteer parents, teachers and local residents remained in place and were supposed to provide local input, but in many cases those councils have struggled to take shape.

Ryan Lutes, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU), said in an interview that since the dissolution of school boards, the union has heard from parents and teachers “that a layer of accountability and transparency and decision making got lost.”

Becky Druhan is Nova Scotia’s minister of education and early childhood development. (Robert Short/CBC)

“Parents have been vocal, and certainly the NSTU has been vocal, that parents should have a right to some decision making,” he added. 

“We’re disappointed that what we believe is the best scenario didn’t happen … democratically elected and accountable school boards,” Lutes said.

The hope is that enhancements to SACs will foster more parent involvement at all levels of the school system, said Education Minister Becky Druhan in an interview. That also involves more opportunities for “parent, guardian and community representation on the SAC.”

Druhan said the recent announcement came out of a consultation process, complete with focus groups that engaged with both existing SACs and school communities at large.

She said families wanted more transparency from the school and a better understanding of how school decisions are made. They also wanted more information on how to navigate the school system and more opportunities to provide feedback.

“A couple of the actions that we’re taking, I think, really, really get at that exact need,” she added.

Druhan also highlighted the upcoming public engagement sessions with parents, guardians and regional leaders, which will be led by regional executive directors and held three times a year, to discuss student achievement and planning.

A woman looks at the camera
NDP MLA Suzy Hansen represents Halifax Needham and was previously elected to the Halifax Regional School Board. (Robert Short/CBC)

There will also be a new regional student advisory committee that reports directly to its regional executive director or superintendent on the goings-on at schools.

“I think they’ll be very welcomed within communities in terms of enhancing transparency,” Druhan said.

Like Lutes, NDP MLA Suzy Hansen — who was a school board member from 2016 to 2018 — was also critical of the announcement.

For her, changes to the SACs don’t address the issues of depending on volunteer efforts to keep the SACs operating at optimal capacity or feedback from families that want elected officials to represent them in conversations with the government.

“Some parents work two jobs now…. It’s a commitment to be able to step up,” Hansen said. “Some schools have strong SACs that can meet regularly and can do that work, and some don’t.”

Hansen went on to say that even with the new regional committee, there is still farther to go to improve transparency.

“How do we hold the minister accountable? That would be my biggest question,” she said. “I am an MLA and I have to jump through hoops to speak to the minister myself. Just imagine being a parent, caregiver, community member who’s a part of a SAC.” 

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