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parents strike on school councils

Zero out of five. One out of five. One out of five.

Zero out of five. One out of five. One out of five. One out of six. One out of five.

Remind you of someone bombing their French quizzes back in school?

No, it’s the number of volunteers who stepped forward to fill empty Yukon school council positions this fall.

Grey Mountain Elementary has five spots on its council. Zero volunteers. Only one parent stepped forward out of the hundreds at each of Selkirk, Whitehorse Elementary, Hidden Valley, Holy Family, Mayo’s JV Clark, Robert Service School in Dawson, St. Elias School in Haines Junction and Ross River. Only two stepped forward to fill the seven spots at Porter Creek High. Fifteen schools had fewer volunteers than needed.

This is remarkable. The Yukon has a very active and engaged citizenry. Everyone seems to be on two or three boards or run a charity or sports league in their spare time. Thousands of volunteers step forward for the Arctic Winter Games, and events like the Skagway road relay are paragons of community engagement. I can’t even keep track of how many people have put their names on the city council ballot.

Yukoners also love their children and care about their education as much as anyone else.

So it is very worrying to see that parents have apparently gone on strike and refused to volunteer for school councils.

I used to chair the school council at Whitehorse Elementary, and sat on the one at F.H. Collins high school. I asked a dozen former council members at those and other schools what they thought about school councils and why they weren’t spending their time on council any more.

The responses aren’t pretty. The Department of Education has done a thorough job of alienating some very talented and engaged people, who are now enthusiastically building other organizations around town.

A few of the quotes: “Why be on an advisory council for people who don’t want advice?” Being on council “can be a frustrating experience.”“I was frustrated by the politics (and pace) of getting things done.”“It is the bureaucrats who run the show, (and) pay lip service to public input.”“I felt we were viewed as a ‘pain in the ass’” by the Department of Education and school administration.”“Councils are essentially powerless advocates.”

Several ex-council members remembered being consulted by principals on minor topics, such as overnight field trips or dates for PD days, but finding out only after the fact that important decisions had been made about class sizes or school programs.

Another remembered an episode (which I also recall), where senior officials in the public school branch announced they were working on major new educational initiatives. We tried to meet with them to give our input and share some of our ideas. It took months to get on their calendar, and when we met they refused to discuss anything substantive or even tell us anything specific they were working on.

One ex-councillor described the officials’ talk as disdainful and vacant, “even by YTG standards.” Later on, they announced a big new strategy, which as far as we could tell made zero difference in our children’s classrooms.

Another recalled the absurdity of the department insisting on vetting school council spending on projects over $500, even if the council raised the money. Say you are elected to a school council and raise $500 at a barbecue and car wash. You have to go ask for permission to spend the money on books for the library or new tetherball poles.

Even seemingly “no brainer” ideas can go nowhere slowly. Take the idea of parents getting a tax deduction for donating money to a school for books or equipment. Right now, you can only get a tax receipt if your money goes into the YTG pot for general use, with no guarantees it will end up back at your child’s school.

You can make tax-deductible donations to literally hundreds of groups in the Yukon, but not your child’s school. We also have the example of the hospital foundation, which has raised piles of money for the health system. I recall raising this idea more than five years ago, and now current school councillors are still complaining about it.

It is hard to come up with a good reason why this idea remains stuck somewhere in the Department of Education.

Despite all these frustrations, the overwhelming majority of ex-councillors recommended getting involved. One, most of whose comments cannot be published in a family newspaper, ended his email by saying “having said all this, I think it is any parent’s moral duty to get involved.”

I asked my Grade 8 daughter if she thought I had a duty to get involved. “Yes,” she replied firmly. If people don’t get involved, then democracy doesn’t work. And Yukon schools are among our most important community institutions.

I agree. I remember one time we did make a difference. My fellow council members and I heard from a lot of parents worried about reading support at the school. We wanted to compare learning assistant staffing at our school versus other schools. When the Department of Education wouldn’t give us the data, we used access-to-information requests to prove that our school was under-staffed in this area. And we lobbied successfully over a number of years to get more learning assistants at the school, something that made a real difference to children I actually know.

So, despite the frustrations, I’m going to email the principal and volunteer. I hope you will too.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.