Amalgamation: a word that stirs the blood.
The headline in the Telegram of March 27 this year read, “Amalgamated School Board to be in place by September school start.” Education Minister Clyde Jackman was trying to reassure everyone that money for the system, the number of people in the system and the way education is delivered will not be compromised by the amalgamation of school boards announced in the provincial budget.
Four English boards and one French board will be reduced to just two — one English and one French. It’s all supposed to be in place before school opens again in September. This is what bureaucrats call an aggressive agenda.
Why make this move?
Apparently we will save a lot of money, and the budget of 2013 was all about savings. What may have been lost in the effort to balance the books, however, is the purpose for some of the agencies we have in place. School boards being one of them.
A recent national study conducted, in part, by researchers from Memorial University, dealing with issues of governance in the province, actually addresses the proposed school board change, and not in glowing terms. The researchers argue that the change will present a lot of challenges for the new board. The large geography of our province and the equitable distribution of resources will be difficult to administer.
There is a justifiable fear among educators and administrators that their influence and voice will be weakened by the change. Rural Newfoundland and Labrador has always been challenged by centralized government. The so-called big office in St. John’s gives people outside the mythical overpass fits. How do your local concerns get to be a top priority for the new mega-board?
Education Minister Clyde Jackman has done all he can to provide some comfort to those areas most affected, all of which are off the Avalon. “There will be no reduction in the allocation of regular classroom teachers assigned to deliver the required curriculum, no reduction in direct services or supports for students with special needs, no changes to K-9 class size caps for the required curriculum, and that we are able the maintain a pupil-teacher ratio that is the envy of the country,” he says.
One thing government plans to do, to lessen the fear of being lost in the big bureaucratic machine, is to maintain regional offices in local school districts. There will be offices in Gander, Corner Brook and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
The role of these offices will be to execute the plans adopted by the new universal board. They will not be providing decision-making of their own and that’s where the real problem lies. Local people who have always taken a strong ownership of schooling in their region are going to find it harder and harder to get the ear of this new administrative model. I am not predicting good things to follow.
Bigger is not always better. In most cases, it usually means that things get worse. Reducing the number of governments, in this case eliminating three of the four English school boards, does not equate to having less government. In fact, the costs of maintaining some kind of concrete ties with the regions of the province and providing services to them may well increase.
Eliminating local policy makers, like elected trustees, will definitely increase the bureaucracy. You heard it here first!
This move once again makes government more remote from the people they are supposed to serve. Having some government official advise you that your concerns have to be addressed by the St. John’s office is going to cause more problems than it solves. Local action to save a school or improve on some aspect of education in a specific area is going to become more challenging for citizens.
Both opposition parties have been vocal in their criticism. NDP Education critic Dale Kirby says the new model will reduce people’s sense of control at the local level, while Liberal Jim Bennett says the government is headed in the wrong direction. They are both right.
There is an unintended consequence that stems from this amalgamation. The big board will not be nearly as responsive to local concerns as the little boards were. It means a reduction in our democracy and it bestows an ever-increasing level of control to a bureaucracy that never has to answer to us.
Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at: email@example.com