Saturday, August 15, 2009

Renovating the role of trustee

This morning, I decided to quit standing on the sidelines, moaning about the mess and roll up my sleeves to help with the ever-expanding "project" in my living room. It started as a mantle for the fireplace, grew into a mantle plus built-in bookcases either side, which then led to (of course!) the need to rip out the walls, to rewire, deal with water damage from the chimney and some red ants who decided to claim squatters' rights while we were away in Europe. So, my living room is a containment zone, tarped off with opaque sheets of poly and emitting frequent blue language from my husband. I've sat on the sidelines, watching and experiencing frequent flashbacks to other renos- surrounded by lath and plaster, covered in cellulose, cut, bruised and exhausted, wondering why we ever thought we could do this. This morning, I got up early while everyone was still sleeping, grabbed the mud and tape and started working. It felt good.

Mudding is a skill I picked up during our last reno when my husband snapped his Achilles tendon and was suddenly unable to walk, let alone renovate. Adaptability is the law of the universe and it's not the smartest, biggest or the strongest who survive-- it's those who are best able to adapt. As a woman who has chosen: (a) a career in the arts, (b) to have and raise children and (c) to remain in Alberta, adaptability has been a mainstay of my life.

So, what's all this got to do with the role of the trustee? While I was mudding, I was thinking about our old house- built 1913- and the trusteeship -created in 1881. Both have abundant history, both need renovation and both have been (or are) in danger of being ripped down because someone thought it was easier just to build something new. Why renovate instead of rebuild? Anyone who has suffered through renovations on old houses, knows that it is tiring work; you long for the ease of new construction. Right now, it appears the government is weighing up the pros and cons of renovation vs. new construction vis-a-vis school boards. One element of the Inspiring Education consultations has been to look at the future of governance within education. With every possibility, including removing boards altogether, the questions must be asked: who benefits and who loses? Has power been more consolidated or more distributed? Has the public's voice and ownership of education been improved or lessened? Does this strengthen or weaken democracy? And, of greatest importance: is this in the best interests of ALL children?

I think the house of trusteeship both needs renovation and is worth the effort. Like my living room experience--- I felt disgruntled and critical when I stood on the outside of the job. As a parent, I was dissatisfied with the level of communication, I felt information was too difficult to find, I wanted more transparency and accountability from my board. And, like this morning's mudding experience--- I felt much better once I got stuck into the work, that is, when I became a trustee and started trying to open up channels of communication through this blog, twitter, ward meetings, etc. I saw that I could be the voice of the public on issues like environmental awareness by advocating for changes in our purchasing policy. I saw that I could bring the concerns about the school closure process to the forefront through the motion to create the Ad Hoc Committee. I saw the work and dedication of my fellow trustees who wrestle with issues that are never black and white. (The complexity of issues cannot be under-estimated and those at the decision-making level must have the time to delve deeply into these issues.) In short, I saw that trustees can and do make a difference.

I think the writing is on the wall, however... and if we want to see boards in the future, we will need to adapt. To use the renovation metaphor (which may well be wearing thin now!), we can't afford to continue to use the old heating system when new ones are so much more efficient, the windows need to be upgraded for more transparency and the decor are sooooo "yesterday"! However, the foundation of democracy is solid and the historic wood trim is beautiful and rare. The walls of public service are true. I believe this house is worth saving.


Christopher Spencer said...

First thought: we live in odd times. Lefties talk about renovating existing structures. Righties want to tear things down and start all over again. Who are the conserv-atives?

Further thought: labels matter to people who define themselves by labels. For everyone else, they are becoming less significant.

Do what's best and ethical and realistic, I guess. No ideology has a monopoly on that.

Anyway, on the question of school boards, I prefer to fix rather than replace. Very gently, I'd like to suggest that trustees are responsible for their jobs becoming less significant. Too often elected officials have declined to act, preferring to allow experts to manage the system.

When it comes to urban planning, the city has treated the EPSB in rather a shabby way. We've built family housing where there is no educational infrastructure. In mature parts of the city, there are classrooms that are not needed for K-12 purposes, because of a sharp decline in the number of children living there.

(I don't want to begin to list ways in which the province has treated school districts shabbily.)

To paraphrase Twisted Sister, trustees have been content to "take it." If that doesn't change, if they are not prepared to act for what's best, what's ethical and what's realistic, does having trustees serve any purpose?

Usually cooperation and consensus are the right approach. But sometimes, you've got to put your elbows up and get involved in the flow of play.

How can we hope for trustees to be effective advocates for our kids, if they will not stand up to bullies in other levels of government?

Totalrenovering said...

Article that is really interesting. The very best. Thank you for sharing this great article and keep up the good work.