School Boards are Agents of the State


Instead of being overseers of education in their communities and the representatives of parents and public to the bureaucrrats in the school board office, trustees are really an extension of the provincial government.  Elected trustees and board officials, once they get in tandem after the first few months after an election and some training, become field agents to the central authority.  They are not autonomous like municipal councils.

This was well-described by a newspaper reporter before the last board elections last fall, 2008.

School trustees Victoria’s puppets

"No taxation without . . . meaningful representation."

By Bill Bell, North Shore News October 12, 2008

If ever there was a dirty political trick played on the people in British Columbia, it is when we go to the polls every three years to elect school board trustees in the belief that the people we will elect will have a real say in the management of our childrens’ schools and education.

It was more than 30 years ago when I was first assigned the school board beat by then North Shore News publisher Peter Speck. Both North and West Vancouver school boards had "big" personalities running them, and in those days the trustees had real power over local taxation and in negotiating with the teachers and staff.

North Vancouver had Marg Jessup and Dorothy Lynas to name but two great and wonderful trustees who played significant roles in the development of the schools on the North Shore. And of course West Vancouver was chaired by the youngest politician in Canada, West Vancouver political power broker Mark Sager. School board meetings were always packed to the brim with concerned parents, teachers and taxpayers as board members dealt with bona fide issues at the local level.

Now the trustees are frontline fall guys to the directives that come from across the Strait of Georgia. No real budget control, no real control over the physical schools, and as far as negotiating with teachers, the real power there was taken away years ago.

So why would a bright and politically astute guy, like Chris Dorais, who has been chair of the North Vancouver school board and a trustee for the past six years want to run again in the November municipal elections?

I asked Dorais what he thought would make for better education on the North Shore; his answers didn’t really surprise me.

"Three changes would make a significant difference for the role of our board of education in local decision making:

  •      reinstating local taxation authority;
  •      dismantling provincial bargaining;
  •     discontinuing any provincial control over our local capital assets and sale of property.

"The biggest complaint I have . . . is not necessarily the increase in powers I would like to see, but is more about the constant change in authority delegated through School Act changes as well as ministerial orders. They seem to be an annual event or sometimes more frequent, and they take place with no consultation. "

What Dorais is saying is that even if the powers that be in Victoria gave back some of the local authority that they have taken away (school board local autonomy has been dismantled under all three of the past political administrations, Social Credit, New Democrat and most recently by the Liberals), the lack of any consistency by the government in its directives is driving him and many other school trustees crazy — not to mention a few school superintendents.

"Two recent examples would be the government’s 2007/2008 mid-school year announcement on reducing funding through a per-course payment for secondary students after the budget was already set, and more recently the announcement of restrictions on the sale of properties," Dorais explained.

So what is the answer? "The province has been taking away our local control of schools over the past 25 years. I really doubt that they will return that power to our local school representatives," said Dorais.

But he thinks that some power could be returned to the school boards and if that happened there would be some very quick improvements to the school system. Two that would make an immediate and substantial difference with additional funding are:

  •    long-term lease of surplus properties resulting in ongoing funds targeted to new equipment and technology for teachers and students in the classroom. Say Dorais: "I would like to see every school equipped like our new Sutherland secondary."
  •   funding for professional development and implementation of a new model for special needs education providing a choice for families and students and providing more support resources to help students and teachers in the classroom in the area of special needs.

Dreaming? Or strongly believing that his participation can make a difference in the lives and education of North Vancouver school children, Dorais is sticking to his principles and once again putting his hat into a political ring that demands long and hard hours. The only real satisfaction he gets is the smiles on the faces of June’s graduation classes.

Must be worth it!



Teachers: Professionals or Union Activists?


Here is an article which will help in the discussion of teachers as professionals or union members.

Professional Teachers or Political Union?

By John Jensen, Ph.D. (John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist)    4-9-09   

“It’s in their DNA," Bailey said. “They can’t help themselves.”
            Tracey Bailey and I were discussing teacher unions and their seeming drive to politicize education with partisan endorsements and controversial social issues. He is Director of Educational Policy for the Association of American Educators and was National Teacher of the Year in 1993; is extraordinarily articulate, and his command of his subject has enabled him to testify for the AAE before Congressional committees. We talked while he drove south on Interstate 95 and I hunched over my keyboard in Phoenix balancing a portable phone on my shoulder.  I was trying to understand the differences between the NEA and AFT on the one hand and the regional teacher associations on the other for which the AAE is a national umbrella.
            "The big turning point was in the early seventies," Bailey said. Before that time, the NEA had been more loosely organized, and a teacher could belong to a local organization not affiliated with the national. When the American Federation of Teachers suddenly began drawing members away from the NEA, it took a more assertive approach to organizing.
            “The trigger really was what happened to the dues a teacher paid, changing to what was called unified dues. This meant that like it or not, a large portion of your local dues would go to the national teacher union.
            “There were waves of revolt about that. Among teachers you have many independent thinkers and many in Right-to-Work states decided to do something about this affront to their independence.  In some cases, huge numbers said ‘We’re not going to pay to your national union dues. We don’t want our money going to Washington, DC!’  In Missouri, the entire state organization disaffiliated from the NEA en masse.  In some states now, the independent associations are 2 or 3 times bigger than NEA.”  Bailey placed this turning point in the context of overall union membership.
            “How many American workers were in unions in the 1930s?’ he asked me.  I had no idea.  ‘It was probably about 80% or higher in that industrial age," he said. "And how many public employees were in unions?“  I didn’t think there were any. 
            “Right,“ he said, “it was against the law then. But how much of the US workforce now is in unions?” 
            I estimated 11%, which he affirmed. Depending on how you calculate it, he said, it could be anywhere between 8-12%.
            “But how many employees in the public sector are in unions now?” he asked."
            The number was big, I knew, but had no idea that it was 80% or higher.
“As our society has changed, union membership has remained flat.  In the private sector, workers’ unions have declined while the public sector unions pick up a few more, and overall the membership is steady, maybe up or down a percentage point from year to year. The NEA is the single largest union in the country but it‘s not growing, while independent teacher associations are growing 10% annually.“ 

            “So what is it that attracts people to the independent teacher associations over the unions?“ I asked.

            “Now, I don‘t want this to seem critical of many great teachers who are members of a union, but from my perspective I see many of them just putting up with it.  Many experienced teachers have said to me, ‘I‘ve been in the union for twenty years, but no more.  They no longer represent what I believe in.’”

            ‘What does the union do that they don’t believe in?” I asked.

            “There are three main problems,” Bailey said. “The first is that the unions spend their members’ money and the union’s staff time on partisan politics. Remember that teachers as a group reflect the makeup of the general population. Some lean conservative and some liberal. So by endorsing or contributing primarily to just one party and having their staff support those candidates, the unions alienate almost 50% of their members every election cycle.

            “Secondly, teachers pay between $500 and $1000 annually in union dues, with $750 a good average. This is a lot of money to a teacher so they notice what it‘s used for.  Yet because of that ‘social activist DNA’ among union leaders, they cannot help themselves from taking stands on issues that bear no direct relation whatsoever to teaching and the classroom.  How does your union‘s political position on abortion or gay marriage affect how well you teach your subject or how well you are compensated? Too often teachers see their union dues going to sheer political activity reflecting neither their classroom priorities nor their personal beliefs.

            “Finally, when we ask new members of our association what they like most about it, they tell us they like the updates and the newsletters and so on, but the primary thing is that they get twice the legal and liability coverage. They want help in the classroom and they want to know what’s happening in their profession that might affect them.  We spend our resources on these things that matter most to teachers, and they notice it.”

            I wanted to know how membership in a union versus an association might influence how a teacher then affected students. Bailey reframed my question.

            “Start with the impact on the teachers themselves.  Once I was giving a workshop in a school where the teachers were just great, and we were staying after school talking about teaching and sharing ideas. Unfortunately, the union stepped in and said that we couldn’t do that.  We had to leave the school because we weren’t permitted to have the building open any later under their union contract without prior approval. Think how that limits the most productive and creative teachers when they aren’t permitted to do things a little differently, or when the union contract and the bureaucracy make it harder for them to do what they know is best for kids.” Instead of union contract issues, our primary question is ‘How is this helping the child?"

            Acknowledging that this was just one example with generalizations involved, he explained how industrial union attitudes about such things as piece work, hourly rates, and shop stewards were out of step with professional teaching. “I grew up in construction and I know what that’s about,” Bailey said, “but that’s not what professional teachers are like.  We’re more like doctors and lawyers and scientists. Our focus is on doing the best job we can for the people we serve.  Our respect for doctors is not due to their being in a union. I tell teachers all the time that lawyers, doctors, and scientists do not achieve their compensation or respect as professionals through union representation or collective bargaining.  

            “I taught in Florida, where the legislature decided to reward entire schools with $100 a child if the school made sufficient academic progress. From the legislature’s point of view it wasn’t that much money, but in a school with 2,000 students, this was $200,000 for teachers to work with and the faculty got to vote on how to use the money.  Did we want more copy machines or higher salaries? Usually we voted for a combination of things. Then the union sued the state, asserting that ’You don’t have a right to give extra money like that unless it comes through the union bargaining contract.’

            “If your genuine concern is ‘How is the child doing?‘, then that union position is indefensible. It’s worshipping the bargaining contract instead of what benefits both teachers and students.  Furthermore, it shows the difference in mindset between true professionals and some union leaders. When you pursue a principle like that and exclude all other reasonable principles, how can you say you‘re a professional?”

            “Somebody told me once that there are three types of people in all organizations including schools: speedboats, barges, and rocks.  The speedboats dash around and want to make changes and want to innovate. The barges aren’t bad, either.  They consistently carry a heavy load and are great as long as they can go straight ahead though it can be hard to get them to change direction.  But the rocks, well, the rocks are bound to cause a lot of damage.”

I couldn’t help but think about the rocks I’ve known. One of them made my son’s primary grade years miserable. Others would rather see students funneled to juvenile justice than meet their needs in schools. Another humiliates students so they hate coming to school. Last week I welcomed seeing the problem posed in the August 31 issue of The New Yorker, "The Rubber Room: The Battle Over New York City’s Worst Teachers," by Stephen Brill, detailing how the union defends incompetent teachers.

I was curious how the historical origin of unions would play out under an association. Since unions arose because employers took advantage of workers’ vulnerability with unfair pay and working conditions, I wondered how that issue might play out. 

"There are several angles," Bailey said. "We’re working now within a system that began a hundred years ago when young women had far fewer occupational choices—usually a nurse, teacher, secretary, or housewife.  Their salaries were abysmally low and often considered less important because viewed as a supplemental second income for their family—talk about gender discrimination!  Now their options have expanded greatly.  They can be astronauts or brain surgeons, but teacher salaries and benefits still have not caught up with other professionals."

Regarding salaries and the difference in teacher representation between unions and professional organizations, Bailey said, "let me give you a personal experience that stands out in my memory. I’d been named Teacher of the Year for the State of Florida, and had a chance to meet several Teachers of the Year from other states.  Three were from Georgia, all members of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators—PAGE.  Georgia is one of the states where the independent association with over 75,000 members is far larger than the NEA state affiliate.

            "They were consummate professionals, and told me how PAGE had taken the lead in approaching the Governor about teacher salaries. They’d offered accountability, a willingness to do new things, and expected to be compensated as professionals for that. They knew what was wanted and stepped up to the plate, and in four years, in increments of about 6 percent each year, Georgia teachers’ salaries went up almost 24 percent.  This was not only a more professional approach, but demonstrated to me that it could reap great rewards for teachers."

 Once a contract is formalized and the school year begins, the AAE’s main concern is implementing it and helping teachers in the classroom. They inform teachers about laws and policies that affect them, help resolve classroom problems, and insure that policies are implemented correctly—that both sides "play by the rules." For what most teachers say they really want from a union or an association—legal and liability insurance—the AAE offers twice the coverage of most union policies, $2 million per member per incident.

A common confusion in union-oriented states, Bailey explained, is the assumption that the union can force a teacher to be a member.  "Nobody can force you to be a member of a private organization you don’t want to belong to.  The union is a private organization similar to a church in many ways.  You would never tolerate anyone requiring you to belong to a church and pay tithes to teach in a public school!  Unions may give the impression that they can force you to be a member, but they can’t.

"In the vast majority of states, teachers can choose whatever association or union they want to belong to, but in a diminishing number, about 18 now, unions can still require a compulsory bargaining "representation fee."  Even then, a teacher can demand a rebate of around $100 to $150 of it, and for a religious objection have their entire year’s dues be redirected to an independent third-party charity. These are protected rights under state and federal law.  Independent professional teacher groups can get started and sometimes decertify the union as the bargaining unit.

"For an individual teacher, I’d just suggest that you know your rights," Bailey concluded, "that you don’t need to join a teachers’ union no matter what anyone tells you. Join the organization that best represents your needs and your personal beliefs and that most resembles your view of teaching as a profession."




Trustee Awareness Tips from a “defeated” candidate

When I ran for school board trustee in the last election, Nov 15/08, I kept my fingers crossed that I would NOT be elected. I dreaded having to go to interminable meetings for three years of my life.  My main purpose for running was to bring to public and institutional attention the need to seriously examine the very relevancy of school boards in this day and age.  I did learn a lot during the campaign and from my research and thus I have some insights to offer.


My HOMEWORK on school board issues during my recent trustee candidacy yields a lot of interesting information. I did not get elected, however did garner over 1/10 of votes. My website continues:

As well, I will publish on other sites as news comes in. With that in mind, I share the following:

1. Getting more money for schools. Most candidates I heard or read about said they would dedicate themselves to this effort.

In Quebec the opposition (ADQ) says they would abolish school boards to save $125 million annually. To compute for BC that would mean a saving of about $70 million annually. Instead of the savings going back into provincial coffers perhaps that money should be spread out to BC schools or for special needs. Would BC trustees consider that sacrifice worthwhile?

2. Few trustee candidates mentioned any kind of system-wide reform. Most just wanted to hunker down and improve their own district.

Meanwhile, our sister province to the east, Alberta, seems to have province-wide reviews every few years. Right now they are in the midst of a review of education for special-needs. In 2003 a Commission on Learning produced 95 recommendations with the Ministry of Education acting on 88. The Minister told school trustees Nov 19 that another review is imminent, that “he wants to get people talking about education…that could lead to changes in the legislation that governs how schools are run.” When asked if that meant abolishing school boards, he answered, “…governance is part of that discussion and if we’re not doing governance the right way, then we should be open to the concept of how we should do it.”

These reviews, if genuine, definitely lead to greater responsiveness to what citizens express and want. For example, Alberta has had enabling legislation since 1994 to provide for greater choice through charter schools where parents, teachers and principals run individual schools. This autonomy allows flexibility in meeting accountability standards as well as providing for creative programs to emerge. This is something that BC should consider for its citizens as well.

A worldview approach has significant educational and decisional implications. BC also needs these focused conversations outside the periodic provincial elections. A commission of inquiry soon???

3. School closures due to falling enrollment seem to be a BC political no-no.

Meanwhile, trustees in Boston, even in the midst of closing six schools, are expanding in other areas to improve school quality. They expect to add more “pilot” schools which have more “autonomy than other schools over budget, staffing, governance, classroom teaching standards, and testing programs.”

4. Trustee candidates see themselves as volunteer public servants called to do good things for their community. They don’t see that they’ll be paid to do a lot of busy work and a lot of frustrating political wrangling and manipulation.

A little flavor of the jockeying and fighting that goes on and the ideological agendas at play was evidenced during the recent board elections in Langley. However, rarely do we see anything comprehensive like “Confessions and Frustrations of a Long Time School Trustee”.

Well, there is such a book, not with that title though. The 1998 book by Russell J. Edwards is called “How Boards of Education Are Failing Your Children” and available from $.33 to $1.00 plus shipping (about $5-6) from AbeBooks or Amazon. It’s a long rambling, stream of consciousness, full of insider gossip, political and personal, dirty tricks, etc. Written by a well-intentioned “Master School Board Member” who wants to tell “what is wrong with the educational process and why it is so hard to make progress and solve problems.” Highly recommended, especially for trustees who think it’s a “nice” job and think they’ll get anywhere during any 3yr term.

5. Fads come and go, yet they continue to be embraced for the WRONG reasons. What they really do is buy time for the system to carry on business-as-usual — not for any real reform.

Canada (except for Alberta) it seems is wedded to the pro forma model of consultation as noted in the OECD report of 1976 meaning — going through the motions, affecting concern that is not genuine, perfunctory…

Here is a recent gross example of such a fad from the US. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured millions, NO, over 2 billion dollars into converting large high schools into smaller ones. 8 years later, Nov 11/08, the Foundation called a meeting “to admit candidly that the new small high schools had not fulfilled their promise.” Please see "Bill Gates and his Silver Bullet"

Critics of this program show the harm done to students, 8 years of their lives lost, whole schools turned upside down…millions of taxpayer dollars wasted, good teachers quitting rather than being forced to support a plan they knew would be detrimental for their students…

I’ve been reading the 12 page promo for the Iowa Lighthouse Project that BC trustees will be considering in their upcoming training in Dec and I’m really hoping it is not being sold as another “silver bullet”. By trying to make trustees more “effective” this still consigns parents to a secondary, auxiliary role. Parents having choice and voice can move “stuck” schools and scores far better than expensive trustees and school boards.

Submission to Lions Bay News


To Lions Bay News   Oct 26/08

I’m running for the position of school board trustee in West Van, Bowen Island and Lions Bay for one main reason:  I want to promote the cause of parent involvement in schools. 

Since my daughters were young, I have worked hard to advocate for parents to be in charge of their children’s upbringing and education.  There are very strong reasons why parents should be meaningfully involved and not leave child care or education to others who call themselves experts. 

I am now a grandparent and have seen the steady growth of central office administrations at the expense of local schools. 

It is very easy to relinquish our freedoms, rights and duties to others and over the years this has become such a norm that we, as parents and citizens are losing our independence and increasingly becoming dependent on government.  This is particularly bad in government public schools where parents have very little say in their schools.

School Boards do not make it easy for parents to be involved as they see themselves as being in charge.  There are few opportunities for parents and students to have a voice in quality or achievement goals.  Boards, however, seem to enjoy parents as fund-raisers and organizers of events in the schools.

What I would like to see happen is that each school become autonomous, with a governing board consisting of parents and teachers (including principal teacher). You don’t need distant superintendents, administrators, curriculum developers, bureaucrats, and trustees involved. 

In a place like Lions Bay I’m sure this could be done.

If we abolished the School Board, as I believe we should, we would achieve considerable savings.  These could be applied, perhaps to the tune of $1,000-$2,000 extra per student, or dedicated for special needs.  For more on my views on this topic, visit my website:

I do hope the citizens in Lions Bay seriously consider the idea of school autonomy for the near future.

Best wishes,

Tunya Audain