HALIFAX – Proposed legislation that would radically change the administration of Nova Scotia’s school system was derided as “undemocratic” and “unneeded” Monday as critics lined up to condemn the bill before a legislature committee.
More than 60 speakers were scheduled to make presentations before the law amendments committee on Bill 72, which would largely implement reforms recommended in a recent report by education consultant Avis Glaze.
Among other things, the legislation would eliminate the province’s seven English language school boards while revamping the membership of the 9,600-member Nova Scotia Teachers Union to remove about 1,000 principals, vice-principals and senior supervisors.
Union president Liette Doucet called on the government to remove provisions that would shift administrators from the union to an affiliated association.
“This is punishment, pure and simple, for the strong role that principals, vice-principals and administrators have played in the NSTU since its inception, up to and including work-to-rule last year and the first provincewide strike of the NSTU,” said Doucet.
She said the change would rob school administrators of basic protections, including the right to challenge discharges, suspensions or demotions for just cause.
It was a change of tone from last week when Doucet said there was hope of a new start for the union’s relationship with the government. On Monday, she said trust would once again be an issue if the legislation is passed as is.
“We can never trust that a collective agreement — a contract — is worth any more than the paper it’s written on. This government’s strong-arm approach to unions and collective bargaining has the potential to destroy collective bargaining in this province for the foreseeable future.”
Peter Day, a middle school teacher from Sydney Mines, N.S., said there was nothing in the legislation that would improve student achievement.
“The recommendations of the Glaze report are a fabricated solution to a crisis in education that does not exist,” he said, adding that the closing of school boards was “an attack on democracy.”
Day said more human resources — including teachers, speech language pathologists and social workers — would make a bigger difference in schools than administrative changes.
Suzy Hansen, a member of the Halifax Regional School Board, told the committee she opposes the elimination of boards as an African Nova Scotian with six children in the school system.
Hansen said she was worried about the unintended consequences on “the achievement gap” between the academic performance of African Nova Scotian children and other students.
“We are unaware of what policies are going to be kept and what aren’t going to be kept,” said Hansen. “There definitely are things that need to be addressed, but doing a clean sweep and an abrupt change so quickly is not going to help. It’s only going to push us back further.”
While most of the early speakers before the committee spoke against the legislation, consultant Paul Bennett spoke in favour of it, although he said it could be improved.
Under the legislation, the Acadian school board would remain in place, while the other boards would be replaced by a new Provincial Advisory Council of Education composed of 15 members representing all regions of the province.
School board offices would remain in place, but they would become regional education centres that would continue to make regional and local decisions, although the superintendents would report to the deputy minister of education. There would also be local advisory councils under the proposed model.
“I think you need to consider the regional centres and the executive directors of education. I really don’t think they are going to be sufficiently strong to represent the public,” Bennett said.
He said regional school advisory councils should be governing bodies to make them more accountable.
“Phase out the school boards, yes — decentralize decision making, restore democratic accountability and we’ll all be further ahead,” he said.
Meanwhile, a small group of protesters gathered outside the legislature to call on the government to pause the legislation.
“Nova Scotia is losing 57 elected women and removing African Nova Scotian and Indigenous voices from local decision-making,” the group said in a news release.
The legislation could pass final reading as early as Wednesday.