Some worry that new councils will push dangerous agendas while others sense yet another layer of bureaucracy.
A number of Ontario parents are concerned over a Ministry of Education and Training plan to establish parent councils in every school in the province,
The councils, expected to be in place by June, are touted as a way of increasing communication between schools and their communities. While the councils have basic support of some education officials, a number of parents, particularly separate school supporters, aren’t sold on the idea. They fear the councils may be the first step in a plan to restructure school boards. Others are wary the councils could become dominated by individuals looking to bring secular-humanist values to Ontario education.
The councils were recommended as part of last year’s Royal Commission on Learning report and by the province’s Ontario Parent Council, an agency advising the ministry on elementary and secondary education.
The former NDP government moved ahead with the initiative, and the Conservatives under Mike Harris show no signs of changing plans.
In an April, 1995 memorandum to education directors, school board chairpersons and principals, the ministry outlined the aims of the school councils. According to the ministry, the councils will enable parents and students “to assume a more responsible and active role in education programs and services within their local community.”
The memorandum calls on school boards to establish new councils or to adapt existing bodies, such as parent-teacher associations, to conform to new requirements.
Each council is to include a parent, the school principal, a teacher, a student, a non-teaching staff member and a community representative. Council members serve for one to two-year terms and are eligible for additional terms.
The councils are to advise the principal and school board on a number of matters, including student behavior codes, curriculum and program objectives, budget priorities, extracurricular activities, community use of school facilities, community partnerships involving social, health, nutritional and recreational programs, and the selection of school principals.
Although the councils will serve only as advisory bodies, pro-family group are concerned they could take on an increasingly prominent role in Ontario education.
Chris Lindner, a York Region public school ratepayer, believes the school councils may lead to a loss of control of schools at the local level. “The bottom line to me is that this seems an attempt to dismantle the local school boards,” Lindner said. “I would hate to see parents being stripped of their rights to control their children and leave them open to the values espoused by teachers’ unions, community workers and bureaucrats.”
Brian Taylor, head of the Ontario Catholic Family Association, also has reservations about the school councils. “I’m concerned about the mix of people who will make up these councils,” Taylor said. “It looks like parents are being empowered, but the power could easily be transferred to others.”
Not everyone share these concerns. Monsignor Dennis Murphy, director of religious education for the Ontario Separate School Trustees’ Association, sees the councils as a positive step.” Our association believes the councils will allow the Catholic community to involve itself more with the traditional home-school parish triangle view of Catholic education.” Murphy said. For separate school ratepayers, he added, the concern will be to ensure council members share Catholic educational values.
Meanwhile Dr. Jim Brown, director of education for the Huron-Perth County Separate School Board, said the councils are an excellent opportunity for the community to reassert its role in education. He added that the councils will help keep open the lines of communication between educators and parents.
“The number one role of the council is to engage the community in re-assuming some of the non-teaching functions that have been dumped on teachers,” Dr. Brown said. “ A lot of people have assumed teachers will take on more and more duties, but teachers aren’t social workers.”
Dr. Brown sees the councils undertaking an advisory role on items of local concern. He said trustees will continue to deal with broad policy matters.
The Huron-Perth County board has been at the forefront with school councils. The board made a commitment of greater community involvement in schools in 1990 and the first councils appeared by 1992. To ensure council members share the same basic values, the board ensures only Roman Catholic school supporters be eligible for membership.
Trustees contacted by The Interim were lukewarm to the councils. Paul Fernandes, chair of the Metropolitan (Toronto) Separate School Board (MSSB), wondered how the councils will interact with bodies already in existence.
Fernandes also expressed concern about some groups attempting to use the councils to push for a certain agenda. “The councils are to serve in an advisory capacity,” he said. “However some people might want to push a particular viewpoint too far.”
MSSB trustee Owen O’Reilly speculated on the future of trustees with the emergence of an unpaid council offering advice and input on a wide range of education matters.
David Moll, chairman of the Toronto Public School Board, was more indifferent to school councils. He said Toronto public schools have had consultative bodies in effect for 20 years. “We’ve already got them and our parents are generally happy with the current set-up, “ Moll said.