Cindy Littlefair is elected member for Halifax Peninsula South and West, has four mostly grown children, and works for a magazine by day. Nights and weekends she’s a board member.
Supporting Continuous School Board Improvement
This blog post is part of our series on leadership and governance.
Three years into our four-year term, some members of the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) thought there was money being left on the table in the form of lost governance opportunity. To the extent defined, we were getting the job done, but it seemed that, tackled differently, we could do better. Things weren’t in crisis or disrepair. No one was calling for our heads. But there was the sense that we could aspire to set the bar higher. In true “good-for-the-goose-good-for-the-gander” fashion, the continuous school improvement to which our schools subscribed could apply to us as well in the form of continuous board improvement.
By year three we’d established a rhythm with our collection of discrete responsibilities – strategy, planning, budgeting, reporting, oversight. But were we getting at the whole picture? What were we overlooking? It seemed we could use a framework to both stretch and better define us, something into which to grow and better focus our efforts. Something that allowed for a bigger, more expansive and aspirational view while also providing greater definition of roles and responsibilities in the present. We were still prone to discussion and decision-making around day-to-day operational issues. Too inclined to attempt the work of staff. Like most boards, we could spend ages talking about things that played to our inherent weaknesses - the nitty gritty of programming, school administration, finance, etc. – while our strengths, the unique value that we brought to the board as outsiders, were left untapped: the ability to invest discussion with the point of view of community at a high level, channelling its desires, monitoring outcomes, and, in concert with staff, serving the best interests of students.
The board gave the study of governance its official stamp of approval with the forming of a committee with the mandate to "investigate a new governance model for HRSB and make recommendation of a preferred model(s), if identified, to the Governing Board." It goes further but that's the nut of it. The decision received an accidental endorsement in the form of a report from the provincial Auditor General that pointed to the need for greater clarity of purpose and role for elected school boards in Nova Scotia generally. And then the provincial association, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, hot on the heels of its success with spearheading the development of a board self-assessment tool on behalf of member boards, indicated its interest in throwing its resources behind its own dedicated look at governance. The planets had aligned. Something that had seemed to be of interest only to Halifax had, by happy coincidence, become a subject of multi-agency interest. We had critical mass.
An informal, follow-our-noses, survey of the school board governance landscape in the form of interviews, readings, and conversations revealed that boards all over Canada and the U.S. had undertaken to deliberately organize themselves along different lines, whatever the framework, in pursuit of new levels and types of effectiveness. And they were achieving it. We heard this from board members and superintendents alike. The stories were inspiring. It was business as usual in Halifax, business as performed by ourselves and others since the beginning of time, but we were becoming increasingly aware of the advantages of doing things differently.
The Halifax committee, first out of the gate, includes elected members, staff, and association and provincial personnel. Working separately and together, each drawing on our own perspectives, strengths, and expertise, we pool our contributions, the final product intended to include analyses of each of the models studied, our research, and a recommendation as stipulated in the mandate. The recommendation is pre-embryonic, the involvement of others introduces new considerations and possibilities, but the work is enormously gratifying and the possibility of harnessing our energy differently and more effectively, truly exciting.