Lighthouse Now: Education minister advocates giving power to local schools

By February 28, 2018School Closures
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Decentralizing decision making and giving it back to the schools is one of the important changes to Nova Scotia’s public education system, according to Education Minister Zach Churchill. The minister toured the South Shore last week, meeting with education partners over the controversial Glaze report and its recommendations.

He started off his day on February 23 visiting the two schools that have been spared closure: Petite Riviere and Pentz elementary schools.

“This is about decentralizing some decision making so our principals and our teachers have more say in their schools and so that community members have more say in their local schools,” Churchill said in an interview with LighthouseNOW.

“Right now, school advisory councils don’t have much authority…to direct funding into their school.”

What he called “key structural changes” will be introduced next week, including legislation “allowing us to further empower the School Advisory Councils (SACs),” as well as dissolve the seven English language school boards and move supervisory staff out of the teachers union.

“We’re looking to provide funding to the SACs they can then direct into areas of interest to their own school community and that is not an option now. In Petite Riviere Elementary School they have a chicken coop,” he said, laughing.

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Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Zach Churchill said he wants to strengthen local voices in the schools through enhanced School Advisory Councils.

“I think it’s the only one in the province. A unique project like that would be something that SACs could contribute to, or bring in motivational speakers. They’ll be able to direct investments in the way they believe would be best for their kids.”

Churchill said they’ll work with regional staff to come up with an equitable way of funding. One of the big changes in public education will be no looking at untying funding from enrollment, which can make a difference to rural schools.

“Changing that structure actually allows us to look at a whole new way of funding our education systems…it’s a brand-new world of funding opportunities.”

SACs are based in each school and are made up of the principal of a school as well as parents, teachers, students in some cases, and community members who are elected at the school level.

There are some 373 schools in the province, which means a council for each school, a much greater number than the eight regional school boards.

“We’re not asking SACs to do what school boards have been doing,” explained Churchill. “We’re giving them more local power in their school community to invest dollars in the way they think are important for the students.”

He said the changes will lead to more equity across the province because the elected representatives in each school boards put in place directives differently from board to board, which meant students had different outcomes of success depending on where in the province they went to school.

“This is about unifying the system so that we can make sure that every single kid, whether they’re in Yarmouth, in Bridgewater, Halifax or Cape Breton are getting the same high-quality education.”

He said the regional offices will still make regional decisions and they will be accountable to the minister “and the broader public as the minister is accountable to the broader public in Nova Scotia.”

“Of course, we have to make sure there’s a local voice that exists in out education and we think we can do that through a robust school advisory network from one end of the province to the other. These are the people who are directly involved in their school communities and have the greatest stake in the success of our students.”

Additionally, a provincial advisory council will be appointed by the minister to provide input, including from Acadian and African Nova Scotian communities that now have representatives on each school board.

Similarly, he said the changes turning over greater control to the principals and teachers in the schools will harness their knowledge of what their student need to yield better results in the classroom. And changes to make principals into instructional leaders will have a positive impact in the teachers’ abilities to do their jobs and help students,

The legislature was scheduled to meet Tuesday and Churchill said he’ll be bringing in the legislation that is needed to the Education Act to be able to make the changes planned. At the same time, he said he plans to meet with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union Monday to continue talking.

The union is unhappy with many recommendations of the report and received a strike mandate from its teachers and there is uncertainty as to what that will mean: from work to rule to a full strike.

“Disruption to the class is obviously not in the best interest of our students and our kids come first for government and they come first for each and every teacher that works in our education system,” Churchill said. “We don’t believe illegal job action is in the best interest of our kids or the pubic and we’re keeping the dialogue open to see if that can be avoided.”

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