What do school boards do?
In Alberta, citizens elect school boards to act for the legislature in their local schools and communities. School boards exist because of the belief that government – and decisions – made closest to the people being governed are the most effective.
Through the School Act, Alberta’s legislature has delegated some authority for the governance of education to school boards. As statutory corporations school boards have obligations to perform and they have powers to carry out these tasks. Once passed, the new Education Act will allow for more local decision making through added flexibility. The new Act gives boards Natural Person Powers – providing more discretion in how boards fulfill their responsibilities to
The board of trustees is granted many types of authority to enable it to fulfill its mandate to provide kindergarten to Grade 12 education within its jurisdiction. These powers relate to providing educational services.
The School Act distinguishes between a school board’s “duties” which are mandatory and its “powers” which are discretionary.
See Section 60(1) of the School Act for some of a school board’s mandatory “duties”, such as, a school board must:
- establish policies respecting the provision of educational services and programs
- maintain, repair, furnish and keep in good order all its real and personal property
See Sections 60(2) and 60(3) of the School Act for some of a school board’s discretionary “powers”, such as, a school board may:
- charge a parent of a student fees with respect to instructional supplies or materials
- make rules respecting activities sponsored or approved by the board
School boards exercise leadership through governance in three areas: fiduciary leadership; strategic leadership and generative leadership. The new Education Act places more emphasis on school boards as generative leaders.
When fulfilling its fiduciary leadership role the school board focuses on its legal responsibilities.
The school board ensures:
- each student has the opportunity to achieve his/her potential
- children are safe at school
- the jurisdiction’s financial and capital resources are well managed
- its business is conducted in a legal and ethical manner
When acting in its strategic leadership role the school board is planning for the future. Informed by environmental scans, the school board works on the school system’s mission, values, vision and goals. The school board makes decisions about resources, programs and services that reflect its long term priorities.
Generative leadership reflects the belief that “it takes a whole village to raise a child”. In this role, the school board talks to the community about the community’s needs, the community’s youth and the future. Generative leadership is more than consultation. True generative leadership sees school boards share direction-setting and even decision-making with others. The school board gives all citizens an opportunity to shape the direction that education takes
The school board is an advocate for public education and for the local school system. In this capacity, the school board consults its constituents and shares information with MLAs and government – as an individual board – and collectively through the ASBA. School boards advocate for students. While the school system must not usurp the family’s role, it is essential that school boards partner with parents to ensure children are provided with the best possible educational opportunities.
School boards are direction setters. The school board sets the overall direction for the school system through its annual strategic planning process. The school board through its vision, mission, values and beliefs, identifies strategic priorities and goals for the system. The school board sets the annual budget which determines how resources are allocated to schools and programs.
The school board also provides direction through its policies. This includes planning, developing, implementing and evaluating policy.
A policy is an instrument of governance that sets out the board’s philosophy and provides the framework and overarching guidelines for the operation of the jurisdiction’s school system and the actions of the board’s employees.
When setting policy or rules, it is important the board ensure it has the legal authority under the School Act to establish the proposed policy. The board needs to ensure it is acting within its jurisdiction, or the policy may be challenged and found unenforceable. Many school board policies reference School Act provisions (or other legislation) setting out the statutory grant of authority governing that particular policy. This helps to ensure that the question of whether the school board has the authority to make a given policy is considered and answered before the policy is introduced.
While the school board must establish policies regarding the provision of educational services and programs, many school boards consult with a variety of stakeholders as they develop policy to ensure the outcome meets the needs of the jurisdiction. School boards may focus on establishing governance policies and delegate to administration the responsibility for implementing guidelines or procedures with respect to the jurisdiction’s day-to-day operation and management.
By definition a policy is a general document. It is impossible to imagine every permutation of events that might be covered by policy – and accordingly most policy sets out guidelines and leaves the specifics to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Choosing a policy model is a very important decision for a school board.
School boards are decision-makers. The school board gathers information from many sources; processes that information; evaluates it and makes a decision that reflects its beliefs, values and goals. The school board considers the interests of all the students the jurisdiction serves – not just the interests of students from a particular school or area.
The board of trustees exercises its decision-making authority by passing motions. These motions must be passed by the corporate board at a properly constituted meeting. The school board is a corporation. No individual trustee – not even the board chair – can make decisions for the board without the board’s permission.
If the school board chooses, it may delegate specific tasks to an individual trustee to act on the board’s behalf as an agent of the board, but only as specified by the board in a board motion. In other words, the school board is ultimately responsible for the individual trustee’s action as the school board as a whole is ultimately accountable. Aside from this exception, a trustee acting on his or her own has only the authority and privileges of an ordinary citizen.
School board decisions must be in accordance with the School Act and its regulations. The new Education Act grants Natural Person Powers to school boards. This will give school boards more flexibility which will have an impact on school boards’ authority and how they exercise these powers.
Under the current School Act, school boards may exercise powers fairly implied in, or incidental to, the powers set out in the School Act as well as powers essential to the accomplishment of their expressed objects and purposes. The board of trustees does not have any general authority. So for instance, a board of trustees cannot decide to offer postsecondary education in the province of Alberta. The board of trustees:
- may do what the legislation says they may do
- must do what the legislation says they must do and
- must not do what the legislation says they cannot do or does not give them the authority to do.
The school board may delegate any of its “duties” or “powers” with the exception of:
- making a bylaw
- closing a school or school building
- requisitioning funds from a municipality
- holding a hearing about a teacher transfer
The school board may delegate the power to suspend or terminate a teacher – but only to the superintendent.
School boards may delegate other duties or powers to employees – particularly the superintendent; a committee of the board; a school council or a joint committee established under section 63 of the School Act comprised of one or more its trustees along with persons appointed by another board, person or municipality.
When school boards establish a committee it is wise to pass a motion establishing the committee’s terms of reference. The motion should specify the committee’s duties, responsibilities, mandate, reporting obligations, whether the committee will meet in private, who will chair the committee or how the chair will be selected, any reporting, expense or financial requirements and whether the committee has final decision-making authority or only the ability to give advice and make recommendations to the school board.
The Board-Superintendent relationship
The school board selects a superintendent of schools, delegates administrative duties to the superintendent and evaluates the superintendent’s performance. The school board clearly outlines its expectations of the superintendent. Legislation gives school boards the power to engage in a wide range of activities. Typically school boards delegate operational tasks to the superintendent and focus their energy on governing the system by setting performance targets and holding the system accountable for the desired results. No matter how the school board assigns duties and responsibilities, ultimately it is the school board that will be held accountable for the outcomes.
A school board’s relationship with the superintendent is the most important relationship in the school system. The school board and superintendent have different but complementary roles. Each party’s success is greatly influenced by the other’s success. Both parties must nurture this relationship. The school board must clearly establish the roles and responsibilities of the school board, the board chair and the superintendent.
The school board holds the system – and itself – accountable for achieving its goals. The school board assigns roles and responsibilities for the desired results and creates a system to monitor and evaluate achievement of those results. The school board reports system and school performance to the public and to the provincial government.