Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Failure of Leadership

Hon. Karen Casey
The new school year has just started and the Wentworth, Maitland and River John students are all enduring their long bus rides. Parents are upset. The basic premise of schooling for our children has always been that the little ones go to local schools and the older ones travel farther to middle and high schools. That compact is now broken.

It is easy to point the finger at the senior staff of the Chignecto Central Regional School Board, and especially now-retired superintendent Clarke and the current Director of Operations Steeves. They have long forgotten the concept of community schooling and community engagement, if they ever truly comprehended it. The CCRSB is now just another civil service empire presided over by bureaucrats whose principal occupation appears to be the maintenance and expansion of their empire, with providing education for children a distant second.

The communities of River John and Maitland have different troubles with their schools. They have large schools with empty wings. Wentworth, however, has a small school with no empty space. We have two classrooms, a small gym, a library and a smaller all-purpose room. We have a growing enrollment, currently at 23 and soon to rise to 30 students. Our school is in fairly good shape.

The school closure process is fairly clear. The school Board identifies schools to be considered for closure, the Board staff make their case for closing the school and community makes its case for keeping the school open, and the elected Board members decide. It is an adversarial approach. However, the process is predicated on a number of factors, including:

- it is presumed that the Board staff will work with open hands and open minds, and will co-operate with the community group to provide all of the information that the Board has, in terms of costs to operate, current and future enrollment, alternative arrangements for the education of the children;

- it is presumed that the community groups will have ample opportunity to assess and correct the information being provided to the elected Board, and to make its own case;

- it is presumed that the Board has the independence, and the staff resources that independence costs, to assess the information laid before it, and make their decision.

In the case of the Wentworth school process, the senior staff of the CCRSB, especially including Mr Clarke, did not subscribe to the three tenets outlined above, and instead did their very best to prevent current information from being released to the community, did their best to prevent revised information from being laid before the Board members, and did their best to ensure that the elected Board members did not feel that they had the choice to side with the community, despite the evidence.

It is a measure of the dysfunction that our community group had to have our MLA file Freedom of Information requests to secure the data that the CCRSB staff were supposed to provide, and the Municipality of Cumberland County paid the filing fees.


One of our great Canadian philosophers, John Ralston Saul, once said that the further from a community a decision is made, the less likely that that decision will reflect the choices and values of the community. Distance is not measured just in miles. With school board staff not co-operating with the community, and with the community unable to correct the information provided by the staff, the distance between the School board and the community was a huge gulf that we could not bridge.

There is another old chestnut, left over from my community development days, which suggests that in any public consultation process, if a community feels that they are fully and fairly heard, they are more likely to accept a decision that goes against the community's initial position.

Both of those aphorisms help explain why the three communities feel that their schools have been stolen from them. The communities are also left wondering why there was no policeman to stop the theft. The senior staff of the CCRSB felt that they were under no obligation to fairly participate in the school closure process, so they openly and blatantly set the three communities up to fail. And they succeeded, because they had the Minister of Education in their pocket.


A few months ago, before the final vote,  the Wentworth community met to review the situation. We couldn't meet in the school, of course, because the CCRSB made sure that we could not meet their conditions for use of the facility. So we met in the Recreation Centre. After the meeting,  a few citizens were openly wondering why Hon. Karen Casey, Minister of Education and Childhood Development, would not protect our community from the bureaucrats. Why did she not force them to deal with us openly and honestly? There were a couple of suggestions put forward. One was that if she lost her seat she would want to return to teaching and she needed to have the CCRSB bureaucrats on her side. Another suggested that it was payback time, as Wentworth was unwise to elect as MLA the man who defeated her for the leadership of the PC party. In the end, it was agreed that the likely reason is that Minister Casey had worked for those guys for so long that she till reflexively believed what she was told, and did what she was told. She still worked for them, and silly us, we thought that our elected officials work for us.

That's why so many people don't vote. They believe that it makes no difference, and they believe that all politicians are the same, and none of them much care about the people who elected them. They probably do at the start, but before very long they are almost all proof of another old aphorism, that they came to do good, and stayed to do well.  As far as I can see, that pretty much describes Minister Casey's career. A failure of leadership. Good pension, though, and probably a good dental plan.

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