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Yukonomist: Parent strike!

Interest in school council positions dwindles. Is an unresponsive territorial government to blame?
Keith Halliday

Keith Halliday


There was another spot-on editorial cartoon by Wyatt in last Friday’s Yukon News.

This one had some school children in a museum looking at a fossil labeled “Yukon Schoolcouncilsaurus,” with a teacher explaining the creature went extinct in the early twenty-first century.

The story behind the cartoon was Dana Hatherly’s report in Wednesday’s paper that, as of the day before the filing deadline, 59 per cent of elected school council positions didn’t have a candidate. At that rate, two Yukon school councils out of five were going to lack even the minimum two members to have an official meeting.

After a flurry of last minute volunteer-finding around the territory, the final result was slightly less depressing. Of the seventeen schools with eighty-six council positions, ten still had vacancies. Four schools — Elijah Smith and Hidden Valley in Whitehorse as well as the ones in Carmacks and Teslin — managed to find just enough candidates for their positions to be acclaimed. The three Catholic schools on the other hand all require elections, with 26 candidates for fifteen slots.

The gaps in some of our most prominent schools are remarkable. Robert Service in Dawson lacks three of six council members. Selkirk in Riverdale three of five. FH Collins two of seven. And so on.

So why are parents going on strike here? How do we resolve the paradox of a mass outbreak of apathy about school councils with the Yukon’s strong volunteering culture and the passion Yukon parents feel about their kids?

Indeed, we have 665 official societies (about triple the national average on a per-person basis, according to my beer mat calculations) and hundreds of unofficial groups. Yukon parents organize an amazing array of sports, cultural, leadership, technology and academic extra-curricular programs.

Yet when the call for volunteers for official school councils goes out, it’s as quiet as the deep Yukon forest at Forty Below.

This should be a wake up call for the Department of Education. The Education Act refers 248 times to councils and the drafters of the law clearly had in mind that they would be an important part of the Yukon school system. The preamble includes inspiring language that “the goal of the Yukon education system is to work in co-operation with parents to develop the whole child” and that “meaningful partnerships with greater parental and public participation are encouraged for a high quality Yukon education system.”

Section 113 of the act says school councils are supposed to review and approve the school objectives and educational priorities, make recommendations to the superintendent on resources and advise the minister on important educational topics.

Writing something aspirational in a law doesn’t make it happen.

Unfortunately, this is not a wake-up call for the Department of Education as much as another squawk out of an alarm clock the department has been pressing “snooze” on for years.

Instead of “meaningful partnerships,” the department treats school councils as pesky stakeholders to be managed or as if their main job was bake sales.

The News archives are full of stories about underfilled school councils and the reasons why.

One example is from 2022, when the department announced its plan to demolish downtown’s Whitehorse Elementary and build a replacement school in Takhini. The drafters of the Education Act would be astonished to hear the chair of the school council tell the media that she was informed of this only the night before.

Demolishing your school and moving the replacement to another part of town is, I would say, a big deal. “We’re eager to be a partner in this,” said the chair. “But it wasn’t a consultation. It was the government informing us of its decision.”

I was chair of Whitehorse Elementary school council many years ago, and also sat on the council for FH Collins. I was not surprised to read the current chair’s words.

Back in the day, one cynical parent told me I was wasting my time being on school council. Why give advice to people who don’t want any advice, he said.

I recall a parent putting it more colourfully after another meeting where department officials smiled, took notes, and clearly intended to do nothing.

“Why come to these meetings? If I want to be ignored, I can just talk to my teenagers at home.”

I generally like to end my columns with some positive advice for the reader. With the Yukon education system, this is a struggle.

I actually feel sheepish that I encouraged other parents back in the day to spend their time on school councils.

We can be hopeful that the new First Nations School Board will make a positive difference for the ten schools it controls.

But if your kid is not at one of those schools, you may be waiting a long time for the School Reform rescue chopper to come over the horizon.

That cynical parent gave me some other advice: the public school system is what it is; the job of the parent is to figure out what else your child needs and to make that happen outside the school system.

Which may explain the paradox mentioned above. Engaged and passionate Yukon parents are assessing where their scarce time can best help their children, and deciding rationally that school councils — with the current Department of Education as the partner — are not the place.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and the winner of the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist. His most recent book Moonshadows, a Yukon-noir thriller, is available in Yukon bookstores.