David Bentley on the School Board

David’s article in the Herald, reprinted with permission.

“I wonder what skeletons you’ve got in your closet?”
When somebody asks you a question like that it’s a pretty sure sign you’ve taken leave of
your senses and announced you’re a candidate for public office.
As a complete novice who only heard the siren call a few days after I began receiving
my old age pension, I’ve obviously resisted the temptation longer than most repressed
megalomaniacs.
On the other hand, a thick skin is a definite asset, as witness the indomitable
performance of veteran political exponents like my idol, Ernie Fage.
So I take some comfort in knowing that a lifetime in the news business is an excellent
way to learn how to take calls from people who know you’re an idiot because you just
wrote something they know is completely misinformed.
As for skeletons, there’s a particularly large one – and my campaign mis-manager and
former colleague, Clifford Boutilier, has just started to remind potential voters of that
from the trenches at Frank Magazine.
But I digress. This is supposed to be a serious call to arms to all of you who, like me,
have sat on the sidelines virtually our entire lives, thinking we could do so much better.
Never mind that we’re all terminally afflicted by the notion public life has sunk to the
point where the only inhabitants are people who have decided they can afford to
sacrifice their reputations, such as they are, because the pension benefits are so
generous.
As far as I know, Halifax Regional School Board doesn’t have a pension plan for elected
members. And why should someone who already has his name down at Northwood care
anyway?
Thus, I hope to convince potential supporters that my bid to become the next school
board member for Peninsula Halifax is motivated by something other than the
accumulation of pensionable time.
I happen to live next door to Saint Mary’s on Morris Street – one of the elementary
schools Howard Windsor has carelessly decided he’d like to see shut down.
Saint Mary’s is one of those excellent small schools that thousands and thousands of
students have been fortunate enough to attend since it was built in 1955.
The Imagine Our Schools consultants from Toronto recently recognized its qualities.
They forecast an increase in enrollment – and recommended that it remain open for five
years.
Alas, Mr Windsor, in his capacity as the one-man, unelected school board, chose to
reject the advice of the experts, deciding he knows better.
So ten or a dozen parents, teachers and neighbours of Saint Mary’s are having to
volunteer hours and hours of their time this summer to prove him wrong.
If electors get some decent candidates to vote for this coming October, I’m confident
they will.
At the same time, I’m also hopeful that the school board can be persuaded to realize that
the chronic, ongoing round of school closure threats is really a form of bullying
behaviour that has to be stopped.
Our schools, every last one of them, are the precious institutions that hold the key to
educational success – not collections of buildings that can be neglected and then torn
down in an endless quest for consolidation.
I don’t think this is something that parents or teachers want. They know that bigger
schools are only rarely better schools. Just ask them.
When it comes right down to it, there’s a wider question that has to be asked. Is the
current, top-down attempt by school boards to improve education in this province
working very well?
I see every one of the 137 schools in the HRM system as an individual franchise that has
the potential to deliver the goods – if the parents and teachers at those schools are given
more autonomy and the resources to go with it.
Private schools generally excel because they essentially belong to the parents. They sit
on the boards of governors and see to it that their children get the best education that can
possibly be provided.
Well, all those 137 schools in HRM also belong to their parents and to their teachers.
They just need to know that and to be invited to take the reins.
Yes, of course the school board sets the standards, provides specialized support and
maintains the fabric etc.
But, when it comes to effective delivery, I suspect that goal could more effectively be
achieved by empowering parents and the teachers at the individual schools.
I’d like to see Karen Casey & Co do some experimentation to test what would happen if
individual public schools were given their own boards of governors.
Besides parents and retired teachers, I could see schools inviting leading professional
managers from their communities to become board members.
The Ken Rowes of this world think nothing of pouring millions into our universities.
I think the IMP founder would get a far bigger bang for his educational buck if he could
loan some of his executives to help improve the performance of our schools – which
have far more influence in how young people will turn out.
It’s obviously not the ones who get to university who need the most help when it comes
to coping with life and learning how important it is to make a positive contribution to
society.
And it doesn’t just have to be white collar managers. There are plenty of very skilled
people on the IMP shop floors who could lend some working-world experience and
know-how.
Despite all the negativity surrounding the firing of the last board, it seems to me there is
an excellent opportunity to try to make a difference on the Halifax Regional School
Board – and all the other boards around the province, come to that.
There are nine seats throughout HRM. If you’ve never run for public office for all the
usual reasons why, here’s your chance.
You never know, at the very least we might get to find out you have some more
interesting skeletons in your closet than I do in mine – though Clifford Boutilier says he
doubts it.

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