The Higgs government is reforming how district education councils govern the province’s schools, including a potentially thorny change that will see different models for the English and French systems.
In the four anglophone school districts, elected councils will lose their decision-making authority over budgets and over superintendents, and will now only play an “advisory and accountability” role.
In the three francophone districts, the councils will keep those powers.
That’s because under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, minority-language communities in each province have the right to self-govern their own education systems.
Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Bill Hogan said that left the province with “no choice” but to create an asymmetrical model in the two systems.
“There is a difference because there are Charter rights on the francophone side as a minority community in our province, and we’re not going to mess around with Charter rights,” he said.
“We respect those and that’s why this new Education Act reflects that. … I don’t have any problems with it, either.”
Hogan introduced the changes to the act in the legislature Tuesday afternoon.
He acknowledged to reporters that some anglophone New Brunswickers may recent having elected educational councils with less clout over their schools than their francophone counterparts.
“Not all of English New Brunswick understand the Charter rights that are afforded to the minority in our province,” Hogan said.
“There’s going to be perhaps some education that needs to take place as to why there’s that difference between the two systems.”
Aiming for consistency: Hogan
In the new anglophone model, superintendents — the senior administrative role in each district — will now report directly to the deputy minister and minister of education.
Hogan said that was to get more consistency in how provincial policies are applied in schools across the province.
He said, for example, that the policy on classroom inclusion “has been and continues to be applied differently across our province. I’m not saying it’s the superintendents’ fault, but somewhere the wires were crossed.”
Hogan said he wanted more consistency in francophone schools, as well, but added, “we don’t have as much inconsistency on that side.”
Thomas Geburt, chair of the District Education Council for Anglophone West, called the loss of decision-making power for his council “a step backwards for democracy.”
He said the changes went against proposals from the councils themselves.
“I’m disappointed they did not listen to the collective DECs when we recommended that we made improvements to the current model, and the current model works very well,” he said. “Obviously they didn’t see it that way.”
He also said it would be difficult to explain to people why the anglophone district councils would have less power than their francophone counterparts.
“I understand the protection aspects for the minority linguistic group but aside from that, I’m not sure why our governance structure would be different,” he said.
Opposition party leaders also denounced the changes as a further centralization of power.
Liberal leader Susan Holt called it “a really concerning separation, widening of the gap” between the two school systems that could create more linguistic friction.
Green Party Leader David Coon said the province can’t have democratic, community-based decision-making for one language group and not the other.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Unacceptable.”
Under the changes, Parent School Support Committees in each school will get more training on how to play their advisory roles, and a new Provincial Advisory Committee on Accountability and Alignment, appointed by the government, will advise the minister directly.
Student councils will be formalized in each high school and will now have an official role advising school staff and district education councils.
Officials said there would be changes on the anglophone side to the role the district education councils had in administering a three-step consultation process when they wanted to close an aging school.
Those details will be sorted out in regulations at a later date, they said.