Gordon Swan will never forget the pressures of being an novice trustee in the newly merged Nicola-Similkameen School District.
With hard decisions to be made around school closures, Swan and his fellow board members were forced to learn quickly about their new roles and responsibilities in the face of passionate opinions from parents.
“Having a learning guide for reference during that time would have been extremely helpful in my first few years as a new Trustee,” Swan said.
Thankfully, and just in time for the 2018 election, new trustees will have exactly that: access to a comprehensive, online Learning Guide, courtesy of the BCSTA. The manual will provide a one-stop shop for all board responsibilities in areas such as Governance, Financial and Facility Planning, Human Resources and Labour Relations, Communication and Community Relations, Board Development and Leadership, Aboriginal Education, Responsibilities for Student Success, and Legal Accountability.
“The value of the guide is in its layout and its electronic format,” Swan said.
“Previously, we had our Key Work Guide, which was paper based. This made it very labour intensive and quite often, the material became dated due to the complexity of the education sector and the resources needed to keep a paper-based document up to date,” he said. “But the Learning Guide is broken down a lot like the new curriculum – with big ideas, and then into topics that would be similar to learning outcomes for trustees. It also provides some guideposts for citizens looking at running for boards of education, and it can always be updated.”
The Learning Guide will even include a directory of partner and stakeholder groups for quick reference, and it’s been designed to give trustees the tools they need for effective governance, said Carolyn Broady, BCSTA Director and Chair of the Trustee Learning Guide Working Group.
“Often with new trustees, it takes time to understand the role of governance versus operations, and the Learning Guide will help define these areas,” Broady said. “Trustees aren’t meant to play with the trains, they have a role of overall governance.”
Those who choose to dedicate at least four years of their life to a board of education can include former teachers, administrators, community leaders, and of course, many parents involved in Parents’ Advisory Councils (PACs). The diverse backgrounds of trustees means the learning curve of a collective board can be huge.
“A lot of trustees join because of their kids,” Broady said. “Because we’re locally elected, you can’t necessarily choose someone with a strong financial background or expertise in labour relations. The Learning Guide will help get trustees up to speed much more quickly.”
Both Broady and Swan would admit that governance of a school district is hard work, and it’s not always what people think it will be when they decide to run for office.
“Because of my day job, I was already pretty strong on some areas, like financial aspects and labour relations,” Swan said. “Where I could have used the Learning Guide early on was in areas like communications and community relations, especially with the challenges around a newly constituted board.”
BCSTA has had various learning guides in the past, contained in binders that were hundreds of pages long and which became quickly outdated, Broady said. As well, a number of audits of school districts around the province clearly showed that trustees needed stronger learning opportunities around their governance role.
After consulting on best practices and working in conjunction with other jurisdictions like Ontario, Broady and her colleagues spent more than a year putting together the necessary resources.
“My key takeaway is that we do things one way in my district, but it’s very different across the province. There are more than 50 different districts from urban to metropolitan areas, they’re just so diverse. You’ve got Surrey with 80,000 kids, and districts up north with only 500 students. We needed to find an overarching message that worked for all districts,” Broady said.
The web-based guide will also be available on mobile and tablet, and the BCSTA is planning to offer a useful resource on its website entitled: “So you want to be a Trustee?” The link will include an excellent overview of the role of a trustee for would-be candidates.
“Being a trustee is really about directing student success,” Swan said. “Parents, each day, entrust us with the thing they value most – their children – and it’s our job as trustees to make sure the resources, policies and more are in place to ensure their children can thrive and succeed, not just at school, but in a rapidly changing society.”
The BCSTA Learning Guide will be available to all members in the coming months. Check out bcsta.org for the latest information.