PCs retreat on school board pledge, tote alternative ‘local voice’ education policy

BRIDGEWATER - Government officials have scheduled the first round of public meetings for the South Shore Regional Centre for Education (SSRCE) area. The meetings are billed as one of the efforts to capture the attention of local families now that the Tories have shelved the idea of reinstating elected school boards.

Meetings at the Grade 5 to 9 Hebbville Academy school (March 6) and South Queens Middle School in Liverpool (May 15) will be hosted by SSRCE staff and involves student achievement, student well-being, and capital planning as topics. Go to https://ssrce.ca to learn more or to RSVP.

The SSRCE website states that at least three such public engagement sessions will take place during the school year.

In recent weeks, Nova Scotia's Department of Education and Early Childhood Development announced public school advisory council's (SACs) would get more parent, guardian and community representation and a chance at $10,000 innovation subsidies, SAC chairpersons access to a annual conference to discuss policy and school issues, in addition to other changes.

The department and Lunenburg West Progressive Conservative (PC) MLA and education minister Becky Druhan frame the moves as strengthening local voice and boosting transparency in the public school system.

Reference to or mention of "school board" is absent from the province's commitments, despite the 2021 election campaign promise that a "PC government will return school boards."

In a phone interview, Druhan said she followed her 2021 mandate letter, a document which reads differently than the party's campaign commitment.

The content of the September 2021 ministerial mandate letter tasked her with gathering information "to determine a governance model for P-12 education that allows for increased local voice in education policy ..."

"People wanted a better understanding of what was happening in the (public school) system and a clear path for input and influence on these things," Druhan told LighthouseNOW, indicating that school boards were not what most people, who were consulted and provided feedback, wanted.

"We're fulfilling the promise around creating a governance structure that meets Nova Scotian's needs around local voice in decision-making."

"The actions we're taking are really in response to that."

Druhan's party campaigned during the 2021 provincial election on a pledge to resurrect school boards, a governance mechanism ended by the then-Liberal government in 2018.

"Abolishing school boards abolished a critical check and balance in the system. As such, your PC government will return school boards," reads Page 106 of the PC's platform document titled Solutions for Nova Scotians.

"A local voice is critical, no matter the issue. When you lose your local voice, you lose a lot, and that is what happened when school boards were axed."

In a interview with LighthouseNOW, Halifax Needham NDP MLA Suzy Hansen said the PCs should have been more upfront with its plans.

"If you're not going to do it (reinstate school boards), just say you're not going to do it (and) don't lead us on," she said, a former school board member before entering provincial politics.

What the government is hanging its hat on is not the right policy direction, she said, although she applauds giving SACs more leverage.

LighthouseNOW reached out to the Liberals for comment for this story but they were unable to provide someone for a phone interview.

The South Shore Regional School Board, a body of elected officials, formed in 2004 as a result of two other boards being split, and ran until 2018 when the government dissolved the seven English-language authorities and replaced with a non-elected provincial advisory committee.

In 2019, the agency changed its name to the South Shore Regional Centre for Education.

Current Liberal party leader Zach Churchill was education minister under Premier Stephen McNeil at the time of the provincial policy position was taken to eliminate elected boards.

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