Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Disappointment & redress

I've received a couple of responses to my last blog and because the language was pretty strong, I've chosen not to post the comments. (I'm cautious about libel and slander as the moderator of this site.)

But I think it's important to acknowledge the points raised. Let me summarize the comments by saying that some people expressed deep disappointment in both the MLA comments AND my reaction to them. People felt that I should have been more vocal in my opposition and that my failure to be clearly and unequivocally damning was, in fact, tacit approval.

That's not how I see it, but I respect those views.

During the Klein years, I was a regular contributor to CBC Radio. I wrote satirical, cutting pieces about the government and the politicians of the day. I didn't pull any punches and was completely free to say whatever I wanted. Looking back, I was often pretty harsh...funny (I hope), but harsh. I was also blessed with the gift of distance: I never had to look those politicians in the eye after writing a piece about them.

Now, as an elected official, the rules are a little different. I am obligated to tread more carefully, to choose my words, to consider points of view other than my own, to act with restraint and try to give a measured response. My comments reflect upon a large entity (public education); I am bound to the public and I am but one member of a board, with obligations and duties to my fellow trustees. In my blog, I read and reread my entries to make sure I am being as clear and as fair as I can be. It's not easy and of course, I often fail to hit just the right tone. It's inevitable, really, that almost anything I say will miss the mark for someone: too far this way, not far enough that way. I'm sure many within EPSB would prefer that I not walk this tight-rope every week. They are anxious, waiting for me to fall and wishing that I would just come down. I persist because I think communication is so important and I believe that it's critical to try, even if I know it won't be perfect.

I agree that politicians are responsible to the public and that if their views are objectionable they should be held to account. Accountability looks different to different people: some want a resignation, some are okay with an apology, some want to see evidence of "the lesson learned", others are content to leave the come-uppance to election time.

One person didn't like the focus of my blog--- on social media--- and felt that I missed the point. He felt it didn't matter WHERE it was said, it was WHAT was said that counted. Of course, this makes perfect sense, but I guess my point was that the rules of engagement are changing and the public seems to want both unprocessed messaging/openness AND impeccable statesmanship. It's an impossible mix. (Even 'the king' falters: witness Obama's Special Olympics gaff.)

So how can we exchange ideas, bring them into the public light, have others look at them and give feedback...if we are censored by fear? We must have the courage as a society to hear the objectionable. Freedom of speech is not just about protecting "nice speech", it's about protecting all speech.

This, I know, leads us into some scary waters and, with children in particular, we need to be ever-vigilant. Let me be clear: I don't want any children to be subjected to hate speech, to racist speech, to sexist speech, to homophobic speech. I personally feel this is wrong, whether it's coming from a parent, a teacher, a politician, a camp leader... or any adult for that matter.

If those who posted would like to continue this conversation via email, I am happy to do so. (sue.huff@epsb.ca)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iris, Doug and saying what you think

This week, a couple of provincial politicians have landed in hot water over speaking their mind. In this new age of uncontrolled messaging, this is inevitable. So where does this leave politicians, who have a vested interest in preserving their image (and their party's)? Will it create a desire to back away from honest, informal exchanges? I hope not. There is a great appetite for openness and transparency; the public is eager for people who are accessible and "real" in office.

Posting on a blog or zapping a quick line off on twitter is deceptively easy. There is no "communications expert" to run the message through. There is no approval process....and, so, of course, there is risk that you'll put something up without duly considering all the connotations, implications, etc....without remembering that not everyone who reads it likes you or will give you the benefit of the doubt....without thinking that someone may well be offended by your 'honesty.' It's an instant medium, and by its very nature, does not encourage a lot of careful reflection. So, how will these recent events ripple through the House? What will the impact be on "speaking your mind"? Will other MLAs, who have been sitting beside the pool of social networking, now feel more reluctant to jump in?

I hope not. I believe in the importance of reaching out and connecting with people through a variety of means, including on-line. I think openness is worth the gamble.

It's critical to know what our politicians are thinking, even if we disagree with it...perhaps most importantly if we disagree with it. The voting process in Alberta seems shallow to me: people vote for whoever showed up at their door, the party their family has always voted for, based on a 1/4 page flyer or the recommendation of a friend who is deemed "up" on politics. Few people actually research the ideas, the platforms, the candidates thoroughly.

Blogs and twitters allow us to gain a little more insight, to see the real person, and ultimately decide if this is someone we want to endorse. For this, we should all be grateful.

Specifically on the two "hot" topics: for the record, I think Iris's comment stirs up some good discussion about the value we place on children in our society. Where do they rank and are we, collectively and individually, willing to place their early years as a priority? I think choices are made at a family-level, but society also has a role to play in ensuring that it is POSSIBLE to choose. We need to have adequate supports in place to allow parents to stay at home, if they want to (including single parents). So, for me, I wasn't offended by her comments- I welcome the discussion on a larger scale around children and doing what is best for them. I think a society is measured by how well it takes care of its children and I see too many of our kids showing up at school emotionally and physically deprived to feel comfortable that "we" are doing a good job.

RE: Doug's comments. They were dumb. "Equal" jokes aren't appropriate and are especially out of place at a junior high grad when so many girls are trying to find their strengths. I know you didn't mean to offend, but you did. So, you apologized. 'Nuff said.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kids + artists + environment= WOW

Last night, I had the joy of attending the Voices of Nature concert at the Citadel Theatre in celebration of the ICLEI World Congress. 350 students sang songs about the environment, sustainability and hope with Holly Arntzen, Kevin Wright and The Dream Band. The participating schools were: Blessed Kateri, Delwood, J.H. Picard, Mount Royal, St. Clements, Virginia Park & Westglen. Each school's choir director taught their choir the songs in advance and artists worked with them for a few hours to get them ready to perform. They had one dress rehearsal on the stage with the band.

The calibre of the artists was impressive (Holly reminded me of Joni Mitchell), the enthusiasm of the kids infectious and the message of the evening powerful. For me, it was a perfect combination of three things I'm passionate about: kids, artists and the environment. My daughter was in the Westglen choir and I think she's still buzzing about the event. Children introduced each song and explained what the songs meant to them. My favourite intro was: "This song makes me feel powerful." What a gift these artists gave to these children!

One of my most distinct memories as a child was singing a song called "Leave them a Flower" with a choir of 300 kids. Our voices were a wall of sound and I remember the feeling of being transported by the power of that sound. I felt we could move mountains. I still remember the lyrics, which ironically (but perhaps not coincidentally) were also about the environment: "Leave them a flower, some grass and a hedgerow, a hill and a valley, a view to the sea, these things are not ours to destroy as we want to, a gift given once for eternity...eternity." I think the seed of environmentalism was planted with that song and it has grown with me ever since.

Last night, the kids sang with passion and full voice, backed up by a rockin' 5-piece band. They sang lyrics like: "We map the deepest ocean, send photographs to Mars, we're so enchanted by how clever we are, why should one baby feel so hungry she cries, saltwater wells in my eyes." (Julian Lennon). You could see the connection they felt to the words, to the message. They sang it heart and soul, no doubt inspired by the full and unfettered commitment of Holly and Kevin. Artists do that--- they give over completely and don't worry too much about how it might look to others. Passion is a hard thing to teach, but it can be modeled.

Mayor Steven Mandel introduced the evening by talking about the future belonging to our children and that because of them, we should feel compelled to act on issues of sustainability. He said, if kids tell you it's important, you parents will listen; if I talk, you can think oh it's just some old fart talking (!).

His message was a perfect opening and the final song of the evening reiterated his message. The finale was called "I Am the Future."(Holly Arntzen and Kevin Wright).

The chorus was:
I....I am.

I am the future, I'm the new.
We... we are.
We are the future and we're counting on you.

Thanks to all the fabulous teachers at the participating schools for creating this memorable opportunity for our kids! I have no doubt that it will prove a pivotal moment in many of these kids' lives.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Board outcomes


Well, it was a hum-dinger of a final meeting, finishing around 11:40 PM. The Multi-cultural policy passed, unanimously. Here are some other outcomes:


Motion re Special Needs Education Task Force

MOVED BY Trustee Colburn:

“That the Board establish a task force to review and make recommendations on special needs education in order to enhance the education and outcomes for all special needs students. The terms of reference would be developed by the task force and approved by the Board.”

The Board heard from the following individuals:

- Ms Judy Craig, President Board of Directors Learning Disabilities Association of Alberta Edmonton Chapter

- Kathryn Burke, Chair of the Academy at King Edward Parent Council and Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Alberta

- Ms Lori Fankhanel

- Ms Madeline Rainey

- Ms Bev Oscar

Ms Rainey also provided the Board Secretary with an addendum (with additional signatures) to the petition she presented to Board earlier in the spring. (Totalling 298 signatures)

The Board Chair called the question.

IN FAVOUR: Trustees Colburn, Gibeault, Huff and Ripley

OPPOSED: Trustees Esslinger, Gibson, Rice and Shipka

The Motion was DEFEATED. (Note: In the case of a tie, motions are defeated. Trustee Fleming was absent)

7. Motion re Geothermal Heating

MOVED BY Trustee Colburn:

“That the Minister of Education be urged to explore a geothermal heating model as a pilot project in a new school and that Edmonton Public Schools be the site of that pilot project.”

Trustee Gibson offered the following friendly amendment to the recommendation:

“That the motion be amended to read: That a report of what district practices we are already undertaking to support that we are doing something on our own be added to the motion and that the motion be amended to read: That the Minister of Education be urged to explore advanced design of schools for energy conservation beyond LEED’s (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver; for example, a geothermal heating model, as a pilot project in a new school and that Edmonton Public Schools be the site of that pilot project.

The friendly amendment was accepted by general consent.


MOVED BY Trustee Huff:

“That the motion be referred to the Administration to provide a brief outline of possible curricular ties and learning opportunities for students in a building that is designed with environmental awareness.”

The Board Chair called the question on the Referral motion.

IN FAVOUR: Trustee Huff

OPPOSED: Trustees Colburn, Esslinger, Gibson, Gibeault, Rice, Ripley and Shipka

The Referral Motion was DEFEATED.

The Board Chair called the question on the recommendation as amended.

IN FAVOUR: Trustees Colburn, Gibeault, Gibson and Huff

OPPOSED: Trustees Esslinger, Rice, Ripley and Shipka

The Motion was DEFEATED.

9. Motion re Additional Monthly Trustee Meeting

MOVED BY Trustee Huff:

“That the Board create an additional monthly meeting to allow Trustees an opportunity for in-depth discussion on any topics of interest to the Board. The terms of reference for the meeting would be determined by the Planning and Policy Committee and brought to Board for approval.”

MOVED BY Trustee Rice:

“That the item be referred to the next Trustee Retreat.”

The Board Chair called the question on the Referral Motion.

IN FAVOUR: Trustees Colburn, Esslinger, Gibeault, Huff, Rice, Ripley and Shipka

OPPOSED: Trustee Gibson

The Referral Motion was CARRIED.

10. Motion re High School Representatives Symposium

MOVED BY Trustee Esslinger:

“That the Board host a symposium for high school representatives to have a facilitated discussion on student voice in the District and that the symposium would not exceed a cost of $3,000. The symposium would take place in the fall of 2009.”

The Board Chair called the question.

IN FAVOUR: Trustees Colburn, Esslinger, Gibson, Huff, Rice, Ripley and Shipka

OPPOSED: Trustee Gibeault

The Motion was CARRIED.

Trustee and Board Requests for Information

Trustee Huff requested that the Board be informed of any communications to the staff regarding the District’s response to Bill 44 and that the Board be kept informed of any impact or repercussions felt at the school level.

The Board concurred with the request.

Trustee Huff requested that information be provided to the Trustee Retreat regarding a breakdown of the Board’s budget and recommendations of where to reduce costs.

The Board did not concur with this request going forward. (FOR: Huff, Gibson, Ripley, Shipka. AGAINST: Colburn, Esslinger, Gibeault, Rice)

In accordance with the Board’s procedures, this request will be treated as a notice of motion and bought forward to the next board meeting for consideration.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Board agenda- Tues.

Quite a few things packed into our last public board meeting of the school year.

(Check the link on under "helpful links" to see complete agenda and access all the reports.)

2. Multicultural Task Force: Recommendation Report What does "Canadian values" mean to you? Feedback would be appreciated on the idea of doing three readings in one evening.


We will be discussing the budget for next year and I will be bringing forward some of the key comments I heard from schools and central departments.

3. Board Review of 2009-2010 Plans and Expenditures Budget

4. Edmonton Public Schools' Three-Year Education Plan 2009-2012

5. External Member on Audit Committee This is something I wanted to know more about... and here's some pros and cons of having someone with financial expertise sit on our audit committee. Thoughts??

6. Responses to Board Requests for Information this report includes info on lost instructional minutes due to late buses (special needs), the feasibility of a 4 day school week

7. Motion re Geothermal Heating

-Carried forward from May 26, 2009 Board Meeting. To be debated. The question is should we encourage the Minister of Education to think about a geothermal pilot for the next round of P3 schools? Originator: Trustee Dave Colburn

8. Motion re Special Needs Education Task Force Originator: Trustee Dave Colburn. Should we follow the footsteps of the Aboriginal and Multicultural task forces to hear from special needs parents/educators/organizations?

9. Motion re Additional Monthly Trustee Meeting This one is mine. To allow more opportunities for trustee discussions on items of interest to the Board. Dialogue vs. debate, collaboration time, a means to bounce ideas off each other and seek advice from colleagues...these are some of the themes I will explore. Currently, our time together is largely focused on addressing administrative/District needs and there is (in my opinion) limited opportunity for trustees to bluesky, innovate, collaborate, consult, create or share best practices.

10. Motion re High School Representatives Symposium Originator: Trustee Esslinger... This idea builds upon my idea of creating a forum to hear from students.

11. Delegation of Authority - 2009 Summer Recess


Friday, June 5, 2009

Complete List- MLAs who didn't vote on Bill 44

Ok, I was being a bit lazy when I asked how many MLAs there were in the House. I could have looked it up....http://www.assembly.ab.ca/net/index.aspx?p=mla_home

My critic reminded me to do the work. Fair enough. (Oh, and for the record, I have only missed one public board meeting.)

So, who didn't show up to vote on the final reading of Bill 44....
Ken Allred, (St. Albert)
Moe Amery (Calgary-East)
Manmeet Singh Bhullar (Calgary-Montrose)
Neil Brown (Calgary-Nose Hill)
Pearl Calahasen (Lesser Slave Lake)
Wayne Cao (Calgary- Fort)
Alana DeLong (Calgary-Bow)
Iris Evans (Sherwood Park)
Kyle Fawcett (Calgary-North Hill)
Heather Forsyth (Calgary-Fish Creek)
Hector Goudreau (Dunvegan-Central Place)
Dave Hancock (Edmonton-Whitemud)
Jack Hayden (Drumheller-Stettler)
Doug Horner (Spruce Grove- Sturgeon-St. Albert)
Mary Ann Jablonski (Red Deer-North)
Broyce Jacobs (Cardston-Taber-Warner)
Darshan Kang (Calgary-McCall)
Heather Klimchuk (Edmonton-Glenora)
Ken Kowalski (Barrhead- Morinville-Westlock)
Genia Leskiw (Bonnyville-Cold Lake)
Fred Linsday ( Stony Plain)
Ty Lund (Rocky Mountain House)
Hugh MacDonald (Edmonton- Gold Bar)
Barry McFarland (Little Bow)
Leonard Mitzel (Cypress- Medecine Hat)
Luke Ouellette (Innisfail-Sylvan Lake)
Bridget Pastoor (Lethbridge-East)
Alison Redford (Calgary-Elbow)
George Rogers (Leduc-Beaumont-Devon)
Peter Sandhu (Edmonton-Manning)
Raj Sherman (Edmonton-Meadowlark)
Lloyd Snelgrove (Vermillion-Lloydminster)
Kevin Taft (Edmonton-Riverview)
Janis Tarchuk (Banff-Cochrane)
George VanderBurg (Whitecourt-Ste. Anne)
Tony Vandermeer (Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview)
Greg Weadick (Lethbridge-West)
Teresa Woo-Paw (Calgary- Foothills)
David Xiao (Edmonton-McClung)
Gene Zwozdesky (Edmonton-Mill Creek)

If your MLA appears on the list, you may want to ask them why they didn't show up. If it was truly a "free vote", everyone should have felt free to vote according to their conscience. Abstaining doesn't cut it. In a democracy, you need to show up. (In my humble opinion.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Did your MLA show up for Bill 44?

I was a little surprised to hear that a number of MLAs did not show up for the final reading of Bill 44. It seems to me, at the very least, all MLAs should be obligated to vote on key legislation like Bill 44.


The no-shows from Edmonton were:

Dave Hancock, Minister of Education (Edmonton-Whitemud)
Tony Vandermeer (Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview)
Heather Klimchuk (Edmonton-Glenora)
Hugh Macdonald (Edmonton-Gold Bar)
Peter Sandhu (Edmonton-Manning)
David Xiao (Edmonton-McClung)
Raj Sherman (Edmonton-Meadowlark)
Gene Zwozdesky (Edmonton-Mill Creek)
Kevin Taft (Edmonton-Riverview)

From Edmonton, 9 MLAs showed up; 9 MLAs did not. Of these no-shows, 7 were Progressive Conservative, 2 were Liberal. In total, only 35 PC MLAs showed up. I'm not sure what the total number of MLAs for Alberta (anyone know? 75?).

It makes me wonder why so few decided to show up. They couldn't all be ill. What other obligations can legitimately trump their primary obligation to be in the House? So that leaves two options: either it wasn't important enough to show up or they were opposed to the bill, but did not want to vote against the party. Neither thought fills me with joy. If there is another reason I've missed, I'm eager to hear it. Or if I've made an error with my list, please let me know.

Post Bill 44

Like many of you, I have been following Bill 44. To my MLAs, to the Minister of Education and the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit, I have expressed concerns about the possible impacts. I've questioned the need for this legislation when we already have parental opt-out rights covered under the School Act and wondered why there seemed to be such a deep reluctance on the part of the government to strike it out or allow more time for consultation. I questioned how anyone could know what the "silent majority" thought, when, by definition, aren't they "silent"?

As it became clear that my voice was not being heard and that the Bill was going to pass despite the many concerns expressed by educators, parents, students and citizens, I felt fear well up inside me. I worried about how this would be perceived by the rest of Canada. I fretted for the kids caught in the crossfires of this issue: the kids with two Moms; the kids of parents who fear homosexuality being taught; the high school students eager to find their own voices and beliefs, separate from their parents; the kids who are gay and might feel marginalized by this Bill. I worried about the teachers who might start to second-guess themselves and change their teaching practice. I worried about the administrators who might feel pressure to create new mechanisms to monitor and account for this new legislation. I worried about all the people who fought so tirelessly to be heard and then felt their effort was for naught. I worried they would give up on political engagement and sink back into apathy.

I don't know how this will play out. I can't see the future. Perhaps we will be able to carry on, with teaching and learning unchanged. Perhaps there will be no cases brought forward. Perhaps. I hold onto that sliver of hope.

But I think we lost something when Bill 44 passed. We lost the sense that we were a reasonable people, who could resolve issues, face-to-face, through dialogue, through compassion and a genuine desire to understand one another. We became divided. We walked down the path of intolerance and suddenly saw our neighbours as "other". We lost trust in each other, in our government, in our fellow Albertans. Fear took over.

I hope all the teachers in Edmonton Public will be able to take a deep breath and trust again. I've been reassured that we will not over-react to the legislation. We will preserve excellence in teaching at all costs. We will not bureaucratize this and ask teachers to teach in tighter and tighter "boxes", drowning in more and more forms.

The world is expanding at an exponential rate, we cannot afford to take a smaller view. We must all be brave and do the right thing for our students.