Listen Up! Do we really need a ‘local’ school board?

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

A week or so ago I was talking to a friend in Huntsville about municipal politics and the local elections which are coming this October. I asked him if he knew who was running for school trustee and to my surprise, he did not know that we had a school board in Muskoka.

Well, actually, we don’t. We are part of the Trillium Lakelands District School Board which covers a huge area including the Kawartha Lakes, Haliburton and Muskoka. The Board is headquartered in Lindsay and is responsible for seven secondary schools, 41 elementary schools and seven adult education centres. The Board consists of 10 trustees, three of whom are from Muskoka. Bruce Reain, who is currently Vice Chair of the Trillium Lakelands Board is Huntsville’s representative. Bruce was a well-liked principal at Huntsville High School for many years.

The discussion with my friend made me realize how little we know about what goes on in our so-called local school board. Indeed, with their offices in Lindsay, one wonders what difference it would make if there was no local board of education at all and everything were run by the Province out of Toronto. That seems to be where all the real decisions are now made, in any event.

I remember the days when things were different and education issues were really much more of a local nature, even on a Muskoka-wide basis. My first foray into elected politics was as a trustee on what was then the Muskoka Board of Education. I was in my early twenties at the time and looking back, I can honestly say that I learned more about the ins and outs of politics there than I did in any of the subsequent elected offices I held.

As a wet-behind-the-ears trustee, I recall being asked by Bernard Reynolds, then the Board Chair, what I hoped to accomplish during my tenure. I boldly proclaimed that I intended to promote merit pay for teachers; that is compensation based on performance and results rather than simply where a teacher landed on the salary grid, regardless of ability. Fred Hammel, who was the Director of Education, metaphorically patted me on the head and said something like, “It’s a nice idea son, but it will never happen.” How right he was! To this day, I do not believe we pay teachers based on merit or accomplishments. Really good teachers, teachers who have a positive, life-long effect on students, must be content with the same salaries paid to those who are less committed. I learned from this that you can not always accomplish what you set out to do. Sometimes you can beat the system, but sometimes the system beats you.

Then there was the great debate about vice principals. Believe it or not, in 1970 there was not a single vice-principal in Muskoka. Today, there is likely not a school without one. At that time, however, it was a very controversial issue. One of the Board’s superintendents, Bob Claus, wanted to appoint Muskoka’s first vice principal to serve at the high school in Gravenhurst. Public opinion, the media and I believe most trustees were against it, seeing it as a new level of bureaucracy.

On the evening the decision was to be made, the Board room, then in the basement of the Bracebridge Court House, was packed with angry ratepayers and dubious trustees. Now Bob Claus was an unassuming, gentle kind of guy and I almost felt sorry for him as he began his presentation. But he fooled us all. Instead of speaking to the need or the reasons for creating the position of vice principal, he simply put on the table the name of the individual he wanted to appoint. Interestingly, it was Ken Black, who later became a member of the Ontario legislature for Parry-Sound Muskoka.

The result of naming Ken as his preferred candidate was that the debate immediately turned to who should be appointed to the position, each faction of the Board wanting someone from their own area of Muskoka. We never did get around to debating whether the position was actually needed. This was a clever ploy that got Bob Claus the vice principal he wanted and one that I used frequently in my later years of elected office. It also opened my eyes to the deep-seated parochialism that still exists in Muskoka to this day.

I also learned as a school trustee, that activism, when used appropriately, works. George Parlett, who at the time was Mayor of Bracebridge, decided that the municipality would no longer pay the cost of school crossing guards even though it was the legislated responsibility of local councils. He wanted the School Board to assume the cost, which it declined to do because the duty was a municipal responsibility. Parlett threatened to pull the school guards, which he did on the first day of school in September. That morning, Bernard Reynolds and I from Huntsville and another trustee, Bev Thompson from Vankoughnet, showed up in Bracebridge to help the children across busy streets. Somehow, so did CBC TV. By noon of that day, Mayor Parlett had the crossing guards back on the streets!

In those days, trustees were able to negotiate directly with teachers, have a say in the curriculum taught to students, and really have an effect on the standard of education in Muskoka. While I take nothing away from the teachers of today, I really think that this more local approach had a lot to do with the very high standard of teachers we had over the years in Muskoka and particularly in Huntsville.

All of this makes me wonder what school trustees can really accomplish today? A large portion of our local taxes goes toward education and as the municipal elections approach, I think taxpayers would be interested in what they are getting for their money.

I know and admire Bruce Reain. I have personal knowledge of the positive effect he has had on students. But I would really like to know what he actually does as a public school trustee and how he is able to affect the quality of education in Huntsville. It may be that trustees are restricted by Board policy as to what they can say, but effective communication is never a bad habit and it would be good to know things such as how our school buildings shape up compared to those in other parts of the school district and how our students measure academically with other jurisdictions.

As a footnote, there was a rumour circulating last week that the music program at the Huntsville High School was in jeopardy. That would have been a disaster, as musical talent has played a huge part in our local culture for generations. It turned out not to be true. Even so, it is an argument for continuing to have local representation when it comes to education issues. While Queen’s Park may not have cared, I have to think that Bruce Reain would have screamed to high heaven before he allowed that to happen. Maybe he did.

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4 Comments

    • Gladys Middlebrook on

      I have never seen an option to elect a representative for the school board. It is really not needed as we have provincial government making decisions and policies. Scrap it as well as scrap the LHIN.

  1. Brian Tapley on

    I’m getting old. There are probably errors in my thinking about the school board but I am also a product of that very same school system. I’d suggest, right at the beginning that anyone who knows this field better please take some of your time and continue our education with facts about the school board.

    This said, I wonder about our current school board system. Does anyone pay any attention? Do you know your representative? Have you ever talked to them about anything?
    Considering we pay them and they spend a LOT of our tax dollars (like a little less than half it used to be!) one has to ask if the system is effective and efficient.
    Directors of education, of which this board has several make up to a third of a million dollars a year and again, I have to wonder what great skills and efforts they bring with them when you consider that our Prime Minister makes no more per year than they do. The PM granted has a few more perks included but the point I’d make is that he has a lot more responsibilities than a hired school director and that brings us back to the school board that hires the directors.

    Maybe the fact we hear so little about our school board is because they are doing such a good job that there are no issues of complaint?
    On the other hand, maybe they are just so far removed from most of the members of the community we simply don’t know what they are or have done at all?

    Hugh could be right, maybe we don’t need a school board at all and things could just be run directly by the Province, or District.

    Perhaps we should talk to our representatives and get a feel for whom we are voting in the next municipal election for school trustee. This should be as important a candidate as any other position, based on expenditure of our local taxes, but we consistently seem to forget this.

  2. The problem is not local control of the schools–that was always the case. The problem is the usurpation of the local control of our schools by a MASSIVE bureaucracy at the Provincial level. More and more power is being concentrated in the Province and in the federal government. This has been going on for a long time but it is a very dangerous trend as anyone can see from the lessons of history. The rationale for those who are seeking a more powerful central authority, are, of course, to “ensure the uniformity” of what is, in this case, education. But we all must remember that when local autonomy is sacrificed in favor of more powerful central government, a lot more is sacrificed than is typically explained to the voters and rate payers. This has always been true–the further one gets from where the decisions are made, the more powerless the citizen becomes to effect the issues that impact one’s life.

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