As parents and educators, we know there’s a balance when working with those who may depend upon us.  We want to be their friends, but that’s not our only role.  There is a boundary — the hardest one to find — between being a friend and being an effective role model and guide.

The same is true with Boards and governance.  It’s not necessarily about being liked, it’s about being effective.

While my most recent experience is as a Trustee with the West Vancouver Board of Education, my comments are applicable to Boards in general. I also don’t claim to have answers nor have I conducted exhaustive research; these are personal reflections.

It may be important for Boards and the senior teams they work with to have their goals and objectives align, but this doesn’t always mean their interests are the same. So while mutual support and consideration are essential ingredients for long-term success, there has to be an acknowledgement that consensus is not the same as agreement. Opposition and conflict are not always signs of dysfunction and elements of both can lead to better decision-making because conformity and complacency, in my opinion, are greater dangers.

West Vancouver - Photo by: Reema Faris - West Vancouver School Board Trustee

A quick Google search turned up this provocative article from the Harvard Business Review which points to weaknesses in our notions about teams and stresses the importance of asking questions. I always find it perplexing that we stress the importance of critical thinking skills in twenty-first century learning and yet have trouble with the actual application of such skills in the workplace.  To me, a successful Board is one which makes its safe for questions to be asked (easy questions, tough questions, ridiculous questions, any kind of question) because that is a Board which values knowing over guessing, inquiry over a lack of curiousity, and due diligence over acceptance.

Perhaps the most challenging part of being on any Board today is the way in which information circulates.  Correspondence is rarely two ways — it’s multi-directional —  and the speed at which we communicate has accelerated.  It’s so important to get a good grasp on how communications and correspondence will be managed, but it’s also critical, in my opinion, to recognize that managing the process of being responsive is not about shutting down voices. It then becomes an issue of how to set up an effective system which is timely, efficient, and allows for diversity in who speaks on what and when. The tendency, as we can see in federal and provincial politics, is to centralize the message and if you’re like me, you can see that it works, but at a cost to democratic representation.

Boards also need to know more than what they are told they need to know. As is true in education, it’s not about spoon feeding content, but about engagement and broadening horizons.  It’s also important to remember who makes up a Board’s constituency.  In a complex field such as education for example, it’s not just about the Trustees around the table nor the team in the School Board office nor the administration group in a school, it’s about all of these and it’s also about parents, students, employees, teachers, the community, and more.

It’s not easy being on a Board just as it’s not easy being a parent or an educator. And it’s never about finding the easy way of doing things.

It’s about recognizing boundaries and making sure they never turn into un-traversable moats.

The results may be unofficial, but they are in.

My congratulations to Carolyn Broady, Dave Stevenson, Nicole Brown, Sheelah Donahue, and Pieter Dorsman: the newly elected West Vancouver Board of Education.

With a new mandate of four years and with the campaign behind them, this group of Trustees can now focus on the key priority which is to ensure that our public education system in West Vancouver continues to be one of the best, not only in British Columbia but across Canada.

We are so fortunate in West Vancouver. Not to deny that we too have vulnerable populations and significant needs here, but we are an economically affluent community and one which benefits from the support offered by parents, residents, and businesses.  As I’ve often said, it’s not a surprise that we have a graduation rate of 99% in West Vancouver; anything less would be a scandal.

As a school district, we also have an accomplished team of leaders and educators working on behalf of our students and our community — a team recognized for their innovative practices as well as their commitment to excellence.  Their efforts are matched by the hard work and diligence of all the district’s employees.

And yet I’m apprehensive.

Lions Gate BridgeWhy?

Because there are pressures on the public education system from which even West Vancouver will not be immune.

The most significant pressure which this Board will face, as with all Boards across the province, is the issue of funding. While West Vancouver has been able to develop other sources of revenue, whether via academies, specialized programs, or international student enrolment, the amount raised may keep annual deficits at bay, but it does not fix the structural deficit upon which our system is based.  There are cracks in the foundation.

There’s also a question in my mind as to what the provincial government’s intent may be with regard to both the governance structure and the bargaining structure.  I’m worried about consultations which may appear to be based on consensus and which in fact are not.

With the election of a new Board and with one more public Board meeting to attend, I will be entering a new phase.  I will now be a former Trustee, but that won’t make me any less committed to the cause of public education, whether in West Vancouver or throughout British Columbia. I will continue to play a part as an interested observer and passionate parent-advocate. To find out more about my plans, please check out EducationForBC.com and the information posted there.

With regard to School District 45, my top three issues for the new Board, in addition to continued advocacy at the provincial level, are: (1) to build and enhance relationships within the district; (2) to ensure the continued prominence of the arts and humanities in all our schools while exploring and expanding new opportunities for students; and, (3) to work towards smaller class sizes as well as enhanced support for students including advanced learners, children with special needs, and English Language Learners.

With a longer mandate and labour contracts in effect until 2019, there’s time and stability within the public education system for this Board to do its very best.

I’m counting on them as are all the members of our community, all our education partner groups, and, most importantly, all our students.

My appreciation to all the candidates who so generously and graciously put their names forward for consideration and my congratulations again to each of the newly elected and re-elected Trustees. Thank you in advance for your diligence, your hard work, and your passionate commitment to public education in West Vancouver.

I want to talk to everyone.

I want to talk to parents, students, teachers, administrators, Trustees, business leaders, politicians, school district employees, community residents, the media, and more.

I want to talk to people in the Lower Mainland, throughout British Columbia, across Canada, and internationally.  And I want to share the content of these discussions with others.

I want these conversations to be about education.  Specifically, I want to discuss and investigate the following three key questions:

  1. What is education?
  2. What is the purpose of education?
  3. How do we deliver this education to all the children of BC to ensure the future health and vibrancy of our society?

I also want to make sure that education is a ballot box issue in 2017.  I want the moderator of the next leaders’ debate to pose more than one throwaway question on the topic and I want every MLA candidate in this province to be asked about education when they are campaigning.

Why?

Social Media Profile Picture

Because the current polarization in the education sector is not productive. The discussions about education in this province have devolved into ideologically formed positions and institutional battles with the result that we are not serving our children well.

The last Royal Commission on Education was held in 1988 and the world has changed since then, but these changes are not reflected enough within our education system.

During the recent job action, the BC Education Plan, a framework for planning proposed under the direction of the Ministry of Education, was politicized and the partisanship compromised the plan as an avenue for wide-ranging conversations.

I appreciate efforts such as BCEdChat on Twitter (Sunday evenings at 7:00 p.m. @bcedchat), the Ministry-led discussions around the curriculum, and many other individual initiatives meant to raise awareness of education issues.  I also recognize the hard work of many other groups which have recently emerged to support public education.  I hope they’ll all continue with the important work they’re doing.  The more voices raised, the more they’re likely to be heard.

I also respect the work of the established groups which represent a collective voice for parents (BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, BCCPAC), educators (BC Teachers’ Federation, BCTF), trustees (BC School Trustees Association, BCSTA), and others.  Each organization has their own issues to address and I think they all have much to do in the future to meet the needs of their members.

Even so, it seems to me that we need to draw on a much wider circle of participation.

And that’s what I plan to do.

I want to create a forum and an arena where everyone can contribute to the discussion without having to be a member of any particular organization or having to espouse a particular outlook or perspective.

I want this to be a dialogue for all of us because the way in which we manage education affects each of us.

With this in mind, I’ve established a citizen’s commission on education.  It’s a small step.  One I felt I had to take because the “bigger picture” discussion about education has been lost in the turbulence of the sector over the past few decades.

This idea may work. It may not work. But I felt I had to do something to galvanize public attention and to give education in this province the attention and support it requires.

It’s time to focus the dialogue on education: what we mean by that term and what we want it to be.  Then we need to let our political representatives know what it is we want from our education system.  We can no longer sit back and have them tell us what education should look like because based on the evidence, their views do not seem to extend beyond the next election.

Join me in the conversation.  Help me create a framework for dialogue.  Visit www.EducationForBC.com and follow @edu4bc on Twitter. Help me get the talking started.

Let’s work together. Let’s make this happen for our children and for all of us.

Three years ago, I put my name forward as a candidate in the 2011 municipal elections.  I ran for the position of Trustee on the West Vancouver Board of Education and was honoured when voters in this community elected me to serve in that capacity.

My foray into electioneering also marked my social media debut outside the comfort zone of Facebook.

I dove into Twitter, a platform with which I’ve become very comfortable and which is now a part of how I absorb, consume, and contribute to media on a daily basis.  It has also allowed me to create an invaluable network of connections.

After a long time of saying, “I would like to start a blog,” the election also spurred me to start one which I called The Comfort of Why.  The best explanation for this title can be found in the speech I made at the first all-candidates’ meeting in 2011 where I said:

I take great comfort in the question why.  As long as I’m asking why, I’m thinking, I’m reflecting, I’m challenging.  I am looking for answers rather than assuming I have all the answers.  I’m seeking information rather than dictating the way that things ought to be perceived.

To me, this questioning is not about undermining a system and disregarding the work that’s been done.  It’s about validating what you believe, being responsive and  strategic — making changes when they’re needed, when they’re necessary, and making them at the right time. 

My first blog entry was posted on October 19, 2011, and it was comprised almost entirely of questions including this one:

Consider, too, that the BC Ministry of Education is pushing the concept of “personalized learning in the 21st century”.  Why?  What does it mean?  

My position at the time, in regard to this particular question, was as follows:

Well, I want to be at the table to make sure that if there’s an overhaul of the system it’s done well and it’s done right.  That it’s implemented in a way which benefits all students.

After three years of being at the table, I still feel this is a valid question and one that is not being addressed at a provincial level.

English Bay Sunset

I still want to have this conversation.  In fact, I feel we must have this conversation if we are to continue to offer our children the best opportunities to learn, to grow, and to find their way in the world.

While I recognize the valuable work that our Board has done in the past three years, in collaboration with the District Leadership Team, our education partners, our educators, and all our employees, I will not be seeking reelection in 2014.

Why?

There are a number of factors, but let me focus on three key points.

First, West Vancouver is a community with such depth of talent and with many actively engaged residents who are passionate about education.  The deadline for nominations is tomorrow and already seven candidates have filed their papers which means we will have a dynamic and substantive campaign featuring a diverse range of opinions from individuals who all have much to offer.

Second, the most recent job action was very instructive and there are many lessons to be learned in how it played out.  One of the most significant learning outcomes for me was to recognize that in order to move the provincial government into action on education, we need much greater direct engagement from the public.  That citizens’ voice has to be galvanized if we want to ensure that education is a prominent, if not THE, election issue in 2017.

Finally, education in British Columbia has become such a polarized — and polarizing issue — that what we don’t talk about is education.  This discussion — the conversation I’ve always said I wanted to see happen — has been drowned out by criticisms and accusations, by duelling press conferences and media soundbites, by job actions and political posturing.

It’s time that we, as citizens and voters, speak up and get what we want for our children, our society, and our future.

I have some ideas on how we might do just that.

Watch for Part 2.

Today will be a historic day in BC public education.  Members of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) will be voting on whether or not to ratify the tentative agreement their union hammered out with the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) earlier this week.

As of about 9:00 p.m. Wednesday evening, the BCTF had shared summary information with its members and conducted information sessions on the tentative agreement although they had not yet released the full text of the proposed contract.

While the BCTF executive and bargaining team have maintained that the tentative agreement does not infringe on the court case regarding class size and composition, there are those who dispute their assertions particularly with regard to what’s being called the “reopening” provision.

Not only do I believe that the BCTF is correct in saying that the reopening provision does not hamper the court case, but I see it as a “give” on the part of BCPSEA and the government.

Why?

Before I explain and as I’ve done in previous articles, I’d like to note that any errors of fact in the following discussion are my own as are the views expressed here: these are not the views of the West Vancouver Board of Education.  I’d also like to clearly acknowledge that this is not a legal opinion.

While I haven’t seen the final text of the reopening provision, this summary represents my analysis based on the preliminary information I’ve received from two different sources.

Open Window

According to what I know, if the government wins the appeal, the collective agreement will remain in place until the end of the term which will be June 2019. During that time, if the BCTF has lost the appeal, it may try to refer the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCoC) (which may or may not grant leave to hear the case), but in the time it may take for such action, teachers will be at work and students will be in school.

If you remember, this is significantly different from BCPSEA’s original E81 proposal which would have allowed reopening of the collective agreement by either party following the appeal decision.  Due to intense public pressure, this clause was dropped by BCPSEA during bargaining.

So if the government wins the appeal — which may mean that the class size and composition language would not be restored to the collective agreement — the contract would not be affected. I say “may” because we don’t know if the appeal will address all of the Griffin judgement or only parts of it. There’s no way of saying with absolute certainty what a government win would look like.

On the other hand, if BCTF wins at the Court of Appeal, then the collective agreement may be opened for discussion by the parties. The draft language I’ve seen seems to indicate that the collective agreement would only be opened on this issue. If this holds true in the final text of the proposed clause, it is significant because it means the talks which would result from any reopening would only contend with class size and composition and not any of the other terms or provisions.  That means wages, benefits, prep time, and the changes regarding TTOCs agreed to in this round of bargaining would all be protected.

Faced by a BCTF win at the Court of Appeal, which many presume is likely but which is not a predetermined nor a guaranteed outcome, the government may choose to petition the SCoC.  I’m not clear yet on what that means with regard to negotiations on class size and composition.  That is, if the government appeals to the SCoC, will the parties still open that part of the collective agreement even though the court process has not been completed or will they wait until such time as the SCoC, if it agrees to hear the case, makes its final determination?

Nonetheless, the current deal, if ratified, would remain in place until such time as changes regarding the restored language around class size and composition was agreed to and implemented.  If I’m understanding this correctly and if the court decision comes down sometime before June 2019, the talks on class size and composition could take place without a strike or lockout which would only be options available when the contract does expire.

Looked at in this way, it seems to me that this reopening clause is a vast improvement, from the perspective of the BCTF, over what had been proposed by BCPSEA in E81.

With regard to the view that the reopening clause imperils the court case, it seems to me this opposition is based on an interpretation which is not aligned with the Griffin judgement nor in the spirit of it.

This discrepancy is at the heart of the legal conundrum and which will only be clarified by the upcoming rulings at the BC Court of Appeal and the SCoC if this case goes that far.

The conundrum is this: in the face of a lack of agreement on class size and composition, once and if the collective agreement is reopened for bargaining, which language carries forward into future contracts?

The assumption by many BCTF members seems to be that in such an eventuality the 2002 language, as it was and in full, would carry forward with fixed limits on class size, a fixed cap on class composition, and fixed ratios for specialist teachers.

I’m not sure that’s a valid assumption because it seems to me Justice Griffin restored the language to the historic contract with a clear admonition that it would likely change through collective bargaining.

But, what did Justice Griffin mean by change? Does change mean the same language, different numbers? Different language, same numbers? Different language, no numbers?  How large a scope does collective bargaining have when it comes to new language in a contract for pre-existing provisions?

There’s another piece of the puzzle to consider. If the class size and composition provisions had remained in the 2002 collective agreement, the parties would have potentially negotiated at least two or three or more collective agreements since then.  I think it’s reasonable to assume that the language of those hypothetical agreements may have looked different from 2002 (especially when you consider the unconstitutional measures the government took to remove those sections from the contract).  As much as we might conjecture, we can’t say with certainty what the modified language would have looked like.

Although we don’t know what a consistently negotiated contract may have looked like, it seems to me that in the face of a lack of agreement now, the language of the most recent agreement — the agreement we can imagine but which never existed — would be the language to go forward NOT the historically restored language from 2002.  And, that’s why there’s room in this particular case to consider significantly new language for class size and composition albeit it is new language which the two parties will have to agree upon through a process of good-faith collective bargaining.

Because the puzzle of what happens in the absence of an agreement remains unsolved, I’ve come to understand much better why the most reasonable approach in this situation has to be “let the courts decide” and the only path to a negotiated settlement, at this time, was a “work around”.

The need to let the courts decide is clearly one of the factors which has made this round of bargaining so difficult.

It’s also why I believe that the proposed reopening clause works in favour of the BCTF and its members because it seems to provide a way to discuss the most critical issue in the collective agreement without any further labour disruption to the public education system until June 2019.

And I can’t help but feel that’s a good thing.