New Brunswick

Frustrated justice minister talks about 'dismantling' district education councils

New Brunswick's attorney general says her comments about dismantling district education councils were partly prompted by her attempts to intervene in local education issues.

Andrea Anderson-Mason says she had her wrist slapped for trying to intervene in council busing decision

Andrea Anderson-Mason, minister of justice and attorney general, says she’s heard from a disitrict education council member who expressed 'disappointment in how our government has dealt with education.' (Radio-Canada)

A New Brunswick cabinet minister says her comments on social media about dismantling district education councils were prompted in part by her attempts to intervene in local education issues.

Justice Minister Andrea Anderson-Mason wrote in a post on her official MLA Facebook page on Oct. 10 that she's heard from an education council member who expressed "disappointment in how our government has dealt with education."

The MLA for Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West went on to say that it takes time to get things done, "but we are ready for change."

"One thing we are proposing is to dismantle our DECs so we can have local control, not top-down control."

Rob Fowler, chair of the Anglophone South district education council, says Andrea Anderson-Mason's comment about council is 'disturbing.' (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

There was no reference to dismantling the seven district councils — four anglophone and three francophone — in the green paper on education reforms released by Education Minister Dominic Cardy earlier this month.

The 23-page discussion paper floats various ideas, including exploring the best way to "structure" education support offices and organizations.

"This will include a review of the mandate and structure of the department, school districts and the DECs."

In an interview with CBC News, Anderson-Mason said she sees no difference between what the green paper had to say and what she describes as "dismantling."

"Those are synonyms in my books," said Anderson-Mason, who practised law in St. George before being elected to the legislature as a Progressive Conservative last fall.

The current district education councils are made up of elected officials who are voted in during municipal elections.

The councils are in charge of allocating the budget, commissioning studies and making recommendations to the province. 

In her Facebook post, Anderson-Mason said in her "short year" as MLA, the district council has "slapped my wrist to say I cannot intervene on any educational concerns of my residents … I think we need change … do you?"

Last September, Anderson-Mason sent a letter to the Anglophone South district education council about transporting children from their schools to a certain daycare, which the council had previously said wasn't possible because of financial limitations.

"I was told this is political interference and that I could not be engaged in this conversation," she told CBC. 

This is why, she said, having "local control," would help MLAs, parents and teachers better address their issues.

Rob Fowler, chair of the Anglophone South council, said if an MLA wants to raise an issue, then "fill your boots," but it was the fact that she emailed the council as attorney general and justice minister that raised questions.

"If she'd written to us requesting help as an MLA, it's one thing," he said. "As the attorney general, that's a different kettle of fish. Because she's using the authority of the office of the attorney general to demand changes of us, and that's not correct."

Fowler said MLAs can act as advocates for the community but as an attorney general, "she doesn't have a say in how we do things."

'Disturbing' comment

Fowler said Anderson-Mason's social media post is "disturbing."

"If it's straight dismantling, there's nothing put in place, I would find that highly disturbing in the sense that we're removing any kind of local voice from education matters," he said. 

Recently two district education councils — Anglophone South and Anglophone East — have pushed back against the provincial government by rejecting their budgets, citing a shortfall in funding for educational assistants. 

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says the government has not made any decisions regarding the structure of district education councils yet. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

Anglophone South still hasn't approved its budget for the current school year. Anglophone East approved its budget earlier this month, after rejecting it twice.

Fowler said he doesn't believe Anderson-Mason's comments were in response to these protests.

"I think this has been in the works long before the budget ever became an issue," he said.

Been there, done that?

If the government does decide to restructure school governance, it won't be for the first time. 

Since the early 1990s, successive provincial governments have reduced and redefined school districts. Seven years ago, 14 districts were combined to create the current seven.

Dennis Cochrane, a former educator and onetime deputy minister of education in Nova Scotia, says reviewing a system is always a good idea, but giving more power to the local level by removing the education councils is easier said than done.

"Everybody wants to give more local autonomy, and it's very difficult to do because you obviously can't give responsibility for creating the budget or allocating the budget [to schools]," he said.

A charter barrier

Retired University of Moncton law professor and language rights lawyer Michel Doucet said it would be a Charter of Rights and Freedoms violation to outright abolish all school boards or district education councils.

Doucet said there are multiple Supreme Court decisions that say that francophone minorities outside Quebec should be able to govern their own schools. That's because the charter says they must be able to strengthen and sustain their language and culture.

That doesn't mean provinces can't restructure the education councils, he said. But whatever they do has to comply with Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

No decision made

Asked for comment, Cardy, the education minister, sent a written statement. He said educators working in schools, directly with students, are in the best position to understand the needs of their classrooms and communities.

 

He said that's why the power "should remain" at the local level whenever possible "to ensure they are supported."

The province has not made any decisions regarding the structure of district education councils, he said. 

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