Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dealing with Entrenched Bureaucracies

The Chignecto Central Regional School Board (CCRSB) has finally managed to close our local school, the Wentworth Consolidated Elementary School. They have tried a number of times, at least three times that I remember, and each time they were defeated by basic economics - it would cost as much to bus our children to Wallace or Pugwash as it would cost to keep the school here. Finally, the CCRSB staff decided that they would just close the school anyway and divide our students between Pugwash and Oxford schools, give those schools no additional teachers, and suck up the busing costs. So they did it and they manipulated the school review process to ensure that the Board would vote to close. And Wentworth learned the lesson - it is almost impossible to defeat an entrenched bureaucracy.

When I moved here in 1980 we had a local school Board of Trustees who looked after the school, did minor repairs, sat in on the hiring interviews, and generally provided community input into the operation of the school. We were part of the Cumberland County Board, and the four Cumberland towns had their own independent boards. You can still read stories in the "Forty Years Ago This Week" columns of the Oxford Journal about ratepayers being asked to vote on a bond issue to build a new high school. Our municipal units owned the schools. This is why schools built before 1982 revert to the municipality when they close. This year the small municipalities of Guysborough and Inverness are grappling with the costs of demolishing old schools and remediating the sites.

At some point in the 1980's our school boards in Cumberland County were all amalgamated, and at some point in the 1990's the Chignecto Central Regional School Board was cobbled together from the school boards in Cumberland, Colchester, Pictou and East Hants counties. And it was about that time that the Boards began to professionalise. It used to be that the guy in charge of the maintenance of all of the schools was a smart guy who had started in the maintenance of one or two schools and worked his way up the ladder. He had always worked in the schools, with the kids and teachers. But eventually the guy in charge of the maintenance wasn't from the "hands-on" tradition; he was from the management-engineering-theoretical tradition. And so it went. Fewer and fewer of the staff at the school board came from the "at-school" world - they came from the "human resources" world, or the "information technology" world, or from the "professional management" world. Inevitably, as the school board grew, the loyalty of the employees changed from loyalty to the schools and kids and parents and communities into loyalty towards the board and its employees. Loyalty to each other.

We saw this in the Wentworth School. For years we had had a community-developed school library with lots of good books that changed often, lending policies that let kids take books home, and volunteer staff that could provide a library period for each class each week, where some kids would read and some would find a book. A little later the community established a CapSite in the library, and the kids would come in with their teachers to use our computers to do their research and play their educational games.

And then it began to change. The Board provided a librarian, who began to discard our books, and change the layout, and she began to resent the community volunteers that had started and managed the library  in all the years when the Board provided no such service. When there were enough computers in the classroom the Board employees started to make it hard for us to have our CapSite. We had always had an open and un-filtered Internet signal but the Board wouldn't allow that anymore. A lot of the sites our patrons wanted - innocent sites - were filtered out of the Board's network, so we bought a signal from Aliant. This was not acceptable to the Board as a grade 5 child might have a smartphone and be able to find instructions for a pipe bomb or a porn site. The accommodation that we finally reached was that our computers would not be turned on until after the kids had left the building for the day. And then finally it was easier to just move our CapSite to the community recreation centre.

Part of our problem seems to lie in the structure of the Board itself. In theory we have a number of Board members who provide governance and direction to staff, but in fact it seems that all of the Board members are isolated members who do not know each other very well and simply cannot function as a group - the region is so large and the number of Board members is small. Our Wentworth school is in the southeast corner of Cumberland County and our kids move on to Pugwash and Oxford high schools, but our board member is from Colchester County, and at one point our representative was from Pictou County. Folks from those counties know little of our schools. As a consequence, Board staff can provide any spin they wish to the information they provide to Board members, and they can deliver information selectively or not at all. What was planned as a way of having community direction and oversight has turned in to a captive Board managed by the staff.

I have heard that other Boards in the province work better.

Biologists and philosophers speak about emergent properties, whereby a collection of independent agents appear to function as a co-ordinated group. Shorebirds wheeling and turning as a flock appear to be controlled by a common intelligence when in fact each bird is merely responding to small changes made by its neighbouring birds. The intelligence of bee hives and ant colonies is also a function of many small creatures doing things independently, but in concert.

Bureaucracies can also develop emergent properties, what we might better call emergent personalities. The individual employees of our school board no doubt think of themselves as devoted employees, committed to furthering the education of the children in their care. And I have no doubt that they are absolutely sincere in that belief. But as their on-the-job loyalty shifts to their co-workers, and to the greater good of the Board as an amorphous but real entity, the emergent personality of the Board itself is not one committed to the kids and the communities but to the Board staff's internal concept of the kids and the communities. I am reminded of HAL, the onboard computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who is so committed to the success of what HAL considers the project that he destroys the people who are in fact the project.

The face of our School Board - members and staff alike - is a cold and unfeeling face. It's a face that knows that it has all the power it wants and needs, and it knows that it is answerable to no-one. Parents are a nuisance. Citizens are a nuisance. Lawful requests for information need not be fulfilled because there is no-one to compel them. (At one point our local committee had our MLA filing Freedom-of-Information Requests just to try and secure information that the Board was legally bound to supply!) Our School Board shows the corrupt face of absolute power, and a good many of them would be appalled to discover that so many of the citizens of Wentworth think so. They are individual agents who do not recognise their emergent personality and the corrosive effect that it has on the communities they are bound to serve.

Mind you, it is not a good time to be running a school board. The previous government gave their friends the teachers a 2 or 3% pay raise and gave the school boards a 2 or 3% funding cut, and told the boards to find the difference. I wonder if we will ever elect a provincial government that will mandate a pay cut for staff when they provide less funding for the school board or health authority? I'd vote for them.

Our only hope in dealing with our entrenched bureaucracy is that the Minister of Education will rein them in. Entrenched bureaucracies reform when they are dis-assembled and their power dispersed.

In the meantime, our community deals with some interesting issues. We are told by the Chignecto Central Regional School Board  that we have to find additional funding from the community if we wish to keep our school open. But they refuse to tell us how much funding we need to supply. The Municipality of Cumberland has agreed to pick up the garbage and recyclables at no cost, but the CCRSB will not tell us when the current contract with a private firm expires.

The CCRSB has voted to close our school, in defiance of the protocols set out for them by the Department of Education. They are determined to run down the clock, and then close our school. Somehow the staff  have lost sight of the fact that it is our money - taxpayers' money - that appears in their bank account every other Thursday morning. They forget for whom they work.

And I live every day with the certain knowledge that for the rest of my taxpaying years I will be topping up the pension fund that will pay the CCRSB staff  70% of their best 5 years' average salary for the rest of their lives.

I hear that the bureaucracy is worse in India. It can't be much worse.

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