Nova Scotia

School councils were supposed to play a big role in education. Finding out what they're up to is hard

Nearly three years ago the province dissolved English-language school boards and moved to a new model that included more robust school advisory councils. However, finding out what your SAC is up to can be a challenge.

Just quarter of more than 300 N.S. school websites had recent advisory council meeting information

Tracey Aucoin is a mother of four in Glace Bay, N.S. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

When students at Glace Bay High School were filmed attacking a man near a grocery store in October, Tracey Aucoin knew she wanted to help make changes at the Cape Breton school.

"My little girl is in Grade 9 and she just feels unsafe walking down some of the hallways, passing by certain areas of the school," said Aucoin.

Aucoin, a former education assistant in the Ontario education system, isn't just concerned about her daughter's safety. She wants to see broader use of positive behaviour supports, which aim to reduce and prevent problematic behaviours.

She decided to join her school advisory council. However, she learned it was already full. She looked at her school website to find out about the members and their meeting times, but found the information was two years out of date. It wasn't even clear how to contact the group.

After English-language school boards were dissolved in 2018, school advisory councils were given a bigger role to play in the hopes of maintaining local input in Nova Scotia's education system. But finding information on them can be hard.

CBC looked at 333 Nova Scotia school websites between Nov. 19 and 23. Only a quarter of schools had recent minutes, agendas or meeting dates for their SACs posted online. The majority of SAC sections on school websites were blank or outdated by more than a calendar year.

A new education model

Aucoin's trouble isn't unique. Stacey Rudderham, with the group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, said parents in her group are coming up against inconsistencies in the new SAC model. 

"We have heard from people who have reached out to their school to find out who is on their SAC and they've been told that it's confidential," she said.

After CBC called Glace Bay principal Donnie Holland to ask questions about the SAC, information on the school's website was updated. However, by the time minutes and meeting times were posted, an emergency meeting to address the violent incident caught on video had already been held. The discussion on it was omitted in the minutes, citing privacy and confidentiality.

Aucoin also looked for information on her younger daughter's SAC at Oceanview Middle School, also in Glace Bay, only to find the school doesn't have one.

Stacey Rudderham, co-chair of Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, has heard from parents who are unsure of where to go when it comes to making changes in the school system. (Stacey Rudderham)

Rudderham's group started on Facebook in 2016 to support teachers during their contract dispute with the province. Since then the organization has become an advocacy group for parents. She said her group is needed to provide a voice in the education system, particularly after school boards were dissolved.

"That removed our direct link to schools, to the way that education was being run," said Rudderham. "There's a lot of things that, you know, we would have been able to call our school board representative and bring it to their attention."

Prior to the passing of Bill-72 in 2018, concerned parents or community members often went to their local school boards to discuss things like policy changes or bus schedules. 

SACs now advise principals, regional centres for education and the Department of Education on things like bus schedules, attendance, curriculum and parent-school communication.

Councils are made up of parents, students, community members, teachers and support staff. In some cases they are elected, if interest is greater than the number of spots. The composition and number of members, to a maximum of 18, is determined by an agreement between the school, regional centre for education and the Department of Education.

They are also given a budget of $5,000 plus one dollar per student to carry out their mandates. For example, an SAC could purchase items to create an outdoor classroom for their school.

Zach Churchill is Nova Scotia's minister of education. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Education Minister Zach Churchill said the new model is working, but it's taking time. He said the number of SACs has increased dramatically since 2018 and they are providing the province with advice at a local level. 

"It's had an impact on our attendance policy, on our transportation policy and on our inclusive education policy," said Churchill.

Some SACs that CBC looked at showed a high level of engagement with their communities, including laying out what issues the council wants to address throughout the school year. But many were difficult to find information on.

That doesn't mean they aren't meeting.

A list provided to CBC shows most schools in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education have SACs, although few seem to have an online presence. Even one of Halifax's largest schools, Citadel High, has not posted SAC minutes since January.

CBC requested a list of SAC chairs and contact information for each one from the Department of Education. A spokesperson directed CBC to contact the regional centres for education.

All regional centres provided CBC with a list of contact information and lists of chairs, except Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education, which refused citing privacy concerns. Just five out of Chignecto Central's 61 school websites indicated their SACs had met recently. 

According to the province's SAC handbook, councils can communicate in a variety of ways, including the school website, emails and newsletters.

Where to go?

Rudderham said teachers in the Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education group are hearing from parents on operational issues more than they used to, particularly around COVID-19.

That's something echoed by Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney, who said teachers are hearing more about systemic issues than they used to.

"Those folks are looking to talk to somebody with some grasp of policy, some authority to change policy," he said.

Paul Wozney is the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (David Laughlin/CBC)

When consultant Avis Glaze was hired by the province in 2017 to review the education system, she found many issues with elected school boards, including confusion over their roles and responsibilities. The boards also had low voter turnouts during elections, pointing to a lack of public engagement.

Previous governments have also had issues with the elected boards.

Under the Progressive Conservatives, the Halifax Regional School Board and Strait Regional School board were fired over in-fighting. When the NDP held power, the South Shore Regional School Board was fired over violating bylaws and inappropriately using in-camera sessions.

But Wozney said at least the public knew when and where to find information on the board's public meetings.

"You knew when the meetings were going to be held, you knew that you could read the minutes. They were public documents. And now parents are chasing information and transparency at a school level with people," said Wozney.

Media access

School board meetings were commonly covered by local media organizations, and board members as well as the superintendent often took media questions.

If a reporter wants to speak to a SAC member, they must go through the principal of the school. The principal is the spokesperson for the council, even though SACs provide advice to the principal, regional centres and Department of Education. 

Most regional centres in the province also provide councils with an email address to use as contact information. Principals also have access to those email accounts.

When the province dissolved school boards, it also established the Provincial Advisory Council on Education. The council is made up of appointed members, many of whom serve for two-year terms. It is accountable to the Department of Education and does not hold open meetings.

The provincial council has not posted minutes of its meetings online since December 2019. CBC made multiple requests through the Department of Education to speak to someone from the council, but did not receive a response from the council.

However, Churchill said the council has been meeting and providing the province with advice. 

"They've been involved in advising us on inclusive education, on our busing policy, on our attendance policy as well and they were engaged in giving us advice on our back to school plan over the course of the summer," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brittany Wentzell

Current Affairs Reporter/Editor

Brittany Wentzell is based in Sydney, N.S., as a reporter for Information Morning Cape Breton. She has covered a wide range of issues including education, forestry and municipal government. Story ideas? Send them to brittany.wentzell@cbc.ca

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