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Parent strike: How come almost nobody cares about Yukon’s school councils?

Part of the problem is they have little power to do anything

I suffered a bout of cognitive dissonance as I read the paper last week.

Consider three statements, which I don’t think anyone at a polite public meeting would disagree with.

First, parents and Yukoners in general care deeply about the education of our children.

Second, Yukoners are active volunteers on a wide range of community boards and committees.

Third, the Yukon government has announced a major campaign to consult Yukoners more actively. They even created a new website for the purpose:

The cognitive dissonance hit me as I flipped to page 14 of the Yukon News, which listed the results of the Yukon school council elections. School councils in the Yukon are decades-old consultative institutions enshrined in the law. They are supposed to review school plans and policies and provide advice to school management on everything from staffing needs to school programming to discipline policies.

So why did no one — yes, zero people — step forward for the council in Haines Junction?

Of the seven school council positions at my alma mater, F.H. Collins Secondary, only two citizens stepped forward. At Porter Creek Secondary only one did, leaving six vacancies. At Whitehorse Elementary, the territory’s largest elementary school, there are three vacancies. Jack Hulland, another big elementary school, has four vacancies. Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow has two of five positions filled, while Takhini Elementary and Ross River School have one of five. Eliza van Bibber School in Pelly Crossing, Elijah Smith Elementary and Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek have just one person on their school councils. Selkirk Elementary and Ghuch Tla Community School in Carcross also have a vacancy.

Schools are among the most important institutions in the Yukon. The ones listed above educate about half of all Yukon students.

There is lots of talk in education circles about schools benefiting from tight connections to their communities. Schools can collaborate with social organizations on issues like student hunger, social justice or bullying. Good connections to First Nations are very valuable. And connecting programs like trades or coding with professional experience at local companies is good for students.

So why does there appear to be a parent strike going on? If the Yukon government is keen to consult, and Yukoners care about education and are active volunteers, how can there be such a tidal wave of indifference?

Something is clearly broken, even if about half of our schools did end up with full complements of school council members.

The Department of Education hasn’t made a public statement about the election results with its views about the problem. But having spent six years on two school councils in the past, I have some hypotheses. It’s a problem that has been brewing for many years.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether citizens think their time spent on a school council will have more positive impact than if they volunteered at another organization or spent more time with their own kids. I encouraged other parents at my kids’ schools to get involved. Some were keen, but quite a few were not.

Parents who didn’t want to get involved told me a variety of things. Some questioned whether the Department of Education and school management were interested in listening to advice. Others thought there were too many meetings and not enough doing. And some worried about getting caught in between management, teachers and parents, having to listen to complaints without the power to do anything about them.

Unlike the Francophone school board or the board of a Montessori school, school councils at the rest of Yukon schools are advisory bodies. The Education Act has them “reviewing and approving school growth plans” and “developing school-based policies” and advising on school programs. This sounds good. But they don’t make real decisions on hiring and budgets like a board. School plans are often high-level documents, and if council doesn’t approve one it doesn’t inconvenience management very much. School council budgets are tiny.

If you brought in an expert in board governance, she would would immediately spot a number of reasons why school councils aren’t set up for success. There’s a useful document from Health Quality Ontario that lays out some things you need for a success advisory council, albeit in health care rather than education.

The first is alignment on mandate. While the Education Act has some fine-sounding ambitions for school councils, in reality there is wide disagreement. When I was on school councils, some principals and education officials consulted us on big decisions. But others did not. One senior department official told me about how useful school councils were in organizing bake sales (with education funding per student 50 per cent higher here than the most generous province, underperforming bake sales aren’t our education system’s biggest challenge).

This is where some direction from the top at the Department of Education would be helpful.

The second is “accountability and reporting.” The school should consult its school council on important issues. School council should provide clear advice. Management doesn’t have to accept all the advice, but should report back on what advice was acted on and why other advice was not.

A third success factor is membership. School council members do not have to be parents. The principal and the outgoing school council should be actively recruiting representatives from groups who can collaborate productively with the school.

It is always a challenge to keep advisory councils running effectively, especially if the people receiving the advice don’t think they need it. But schools and their students benefit from having strong community voices at the table. I hope the officials who run our school system agree, and take action so that the next school council election results look different.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.