Risk Management and Good School Board Governance Practices

In a number of cases in Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba, problematic trustee behaviour was on the frontline in 2015-16:

  • In January 2015 Ontario’s Minister of Education appointed a School Board Governance Advisory Panel to make recommendations to the Toronto School District due to the school board’s dysfunction based on a culture of fear and lack of trust.
  • The Winnipeg School Division was the subject of a scathing government report which recommended a 6-month period for the board to implement changes because trustees were "out of control" and "playing political games.” The report called on Manitoba's Minister of Education to fire the entire board of trustees if they couldn't "get their act together."
  • In October 2016 it was reported that alleged bullying and harassment by a BC school trustee triggered an unprecedented WorkSafeBC investigation following claims that trustees intimidated senior management, several of whom had apparently taken medical leave.
  • In December 2016 the Ottawa Sun issued an editorial further to a text written by a school trustee about another trustee that said: "I am soooo tired of ur white pivelged bullshit. I bought a coupla kids. So ya take me on.” [sic]

These cases are difficult and place significant stress on school boards and senior central office personnel. The following tools may be considered if your school board is dealing with problematic situations, particularly where individual trustees are ignoring or refusing to follow legal roles and responsibilities:

  1. Provide school board governance training including training as to appropriate school trustee conduct. Board training by legal counsel should include:
    • A review and understanding of the current governance policies and practices.
    • Clarification and clear communication of the trustee’s role and responsibilities within the board in accordance with legislation and good governance practices.
  2. Provide ongoing professional development to trustees with legal counsel throughout their term of office, including comprehensive governance orientation immediately after taking office.
  3. Ensure the school board engages in regular board self-assessments and measures its performance in relation to the goals set out in a realistic written multi-year strategic board plan.
  4. Review and clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Superintendent of Schools, the Board Corporate Secretary and associate-deputy Superintendents of Schools.
  5. Provide human rights training, communication and respectful workplace training from legal counsel.
  6. Provide training regarding on-line etiquette. This website is a good example of tips and takeaways as to proper email etiquette.
  7. Develop appropriate criteria for the skills and experience required of an effective board chair, including but not limited to governance experience and training, conflict-management and consensus-building skills, and demonstrated experience working on board-wide issues. The Board Chair has a responsibility to ensure that school trustees are able to monitor the implementation of the strategic plan through the receipt of regular reports. The Chair must also assist trustees in developing the means to hold the organization accountable through oversight of the Superintendent of Schools.
  8. Undertake an annual assessment of the Board Chair performance in relation to his or her duties and responsibilities as set out in legislation, board policy and good governance practices.

Monitoring the adoption of newly developed policies and good governance practices on an ongoing basis is also be an important component of this strategy to ensure all involved are conducting themselves effectively within the parameters of the provided training.

Finally, a key leadership role of a school board is to set the conditions for a high-performing school division. The board’s role is proactive and strategic. As noted by Justice McMahon in Calgary Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 1 v. O’Malley, trustees need not be of like mind and may hold strong and conflicting views. They may debate with vigour, and occasionally with rancour. There is no rule requiring trustees to like each other. But they do have one overarching responsibility - a shared public duty to advance the work of the board to which they had the privilege of being elected. At the end of the day, school board trustees have a statutory obligation to make decisions in the best interests of the school board as a whole and individually owe a public duty to carry out their responsibilities and the work of the Board in good faith and with reasonable diligence.