School boards in Ontario operate within a legal context largely set out in the Education Act. Since publicly-funded education came into existence in Ontario in 1841, it has been recognized that a school board has the power to do only what is authorized by legislation.

In recent years, several issues have emerged with respect to governance in the school board sector. Concerns were raised that the governance provisions in the Education Act were outdated. There was no reference in the Education Act about responsibility for student achievement and well-being. Furthermore, there was emerging consensus in the education sector for the need to clarify the roles and responsibilities of school boards, individual trustees and directors of education.

In response to the concerns raised, the Ontario government introduced Bill 177, the Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act, 2009. Bill 177 came into force on December 15, 2009.

Bill 177 provides, among other things, that the purpose of education is to “provide students with the opportunity to realize their potential and develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring citizens who contribute to their society.” It is recognized that good governance requires clarity and a shared understanding of roles, responsibilities and rules.

Bill 177 addresses and raises a number of salient questions. What are the roles and responsibilities of trustees under the Education Act ? What are the duties of the director of education? What is the purpose and nature of a board’s multi-year plan? What role do trustees play in the selection of principals and vice-principals under Bill 177? This article will provide an overview of the new school board governance legislation with an emphasis on the impact of Bill 177 on the role of principals and vice-principals.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE BOARD, TRUSTEES AND DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION

The Education Act establishes accountabilities that are hierarchical in nature. School boards are corporations pursuant to subsection 58.5(1) of the Education Act, which provides:

Every district school board is a corporation and has all the powers and shall perform all the duties that are conferred on or imposed on it under this or any other Act.

It is clear from subsection 58.5(1) that the Education Act confers powers and duties on the corporate board.

The board is accountable to the provincial government for matters expressly referred to in the Education Act, including the financial affairs of the school board, the delivery of the provincial curriculum and ensuring class sizes comply with the law.

In turn, the Education Act establishes the director of education as the chief executive officer of the corporation, and provides that the director of education is accountable to the board of trustees. The position of the director of education is established by section 279 of the Education Act, which provides:

Every district school board shall, subject to the regulations, employ a supervisory officer as director of education and such other supervisory officers as it considers necessary to supervise all aspects of the programs under its jurisdiction.

In addition to his or her duties as a supervisory officer, subsections 283(1.1) and 283(2) further establish the role of the director of education. These sections provide:

A director of education is the chief education officer and the chief executive officer of the board by which he or she is employed.

The chief executive officer of a board shall, within policies established by the board, develop and maintain an effective organization and the programs required to implement such policies.

As the chief executive officer and chief education officer for the board, the director of education has a statutory duty to develop and maintain an effective organization and the programs required to implement the board’s policies.

Under section 218.1 of the Education Act, a board member is required to entrust the day-to-day management of the corporate board to its staff through the director of education.

The hierarchical accountabilities in the Education Act mean that the board of trustees holds the director of education accountable for ensuring policies and processes are in place that are consistent with legislation and board policies and priorities. The board of trustees exercises its responsibility for the management of the corporate board and the engagement of school board personnel through the director of education.

As a group, trustees are responsible for ensuring that all the duties of the board and its staff, as established in the Education Act, are carried out. For example, the duties of the board of trustees include:

  • promoting student achievement and well-being;
  • ensuring effective stewardship of the board’s resources;
  • delivering effective and appropriate education programs to its pupils;
  • developing a multi-year plan; and
  • monitoring and evaluating the performance of the board’s director of education.  

The board of trustees carries out its duties and responsibilities by:

  • setting policy;
  • providing direction for allocating board resources; and
  • hiring a director of education and holding him or her accountable for operating the board in a way that is consistent with legislation and board policy.

It should be recognized that individual trustees of a school board have only the authority, powers or duties prescribed by the Education Act. Powers and duties of school boards are also prescribed under the Education Act. School boards may only act through resolutions passed at duly constituted school board meetings. A school board may only pass resolutions that are within its jurisdiction under the Education Act.

Individual trustees have no independent decision making authority over the school board or its employees. In this regard, the Ministry of Education has taken the position that an individual trustee should not sit on a hiring panel for a principal or vice-principal.

THE MULTI-YEAR PLAN

As part of its responsibilities, the board of trustees is required to develop a multi-year plan. The plan, which is to have a duration of at least three years, is to be reviewed annually with the director of education. The board of trustees is required to bring the plan to the attention of its supporters and employees and report to them on progress in implementing the plan.

The multi-year plan is intended to be a road map for the school board’s vision and goals. With a focus on student achievement, the plan is intended to set out what the board intends to achieve, what its priorities are and how it plans to achieve its goals.

Bill 177 requires the director of education to implement, monitor and report periodically to the board on the implementation of the multi-year plan. In this regard, the director will develop an operational plan which sets annual objectives in relation to the multi-year plan, which is supported by the board’s budget. The director will ensure that the plan sets out the board’s priorities and identifies specific measures and resources to achieve the goals set out in the plan.

DUTIES OF TRUSTEES

Bill 177 establishes duties of individual trustees, which include:

  • acting in a manner that assists the board in fulfilling its obligations under the Education Act;
  • attending and participating in board and committee meetings;
  • bringing the concerns of their constituents to the attention of the board;
  • consulting with parents, students and supporters of the board about the board’s multi-year plan;
  • entrusting the day to day management of the board to its staff through the director of education;
  • maintaining focus on student achievement and well-being;
  • complying with the board’s code of conduct; and
  • upholding the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board.  

Bill 177 requires trustees to entrust the day to day management of the board to its staff through the director of education. In accordance with the Education Act, the director of education is the only board official who reports directly to the board of trustees. All other board staff, including principals and supervisory officers, report to the director of education. The board exercises its responsibility for the management of the board and the engagement of its staff through its employment agreement with the director.

The Ministry of Education has stated that the involvement of elected officials in operational matters can give the appearance of politics driving the operation of the board. The Ministry has confirmed that, consistent with the board chair’s responsibility to communicate decisions of the board to the director and the director’s duty to manage operations, individual trustees may not give direction to a principal.

Where, for example, a parent raises an operational issue directly with a trustee, the responsibility of the trustee is to guide the parent to the staff person whose job it is to address the concern. Trustees wishing to follow up on a concern that was brought to them should do so through the director’s office. Any decision which may have a broader impact on the school community should be communicated to the board of trustees and all concerned parties in a timely way.

SELECTION OF A PRINCIPAL OR VICE-PRINCIPAL

With respect to the selection and/or hiring of a principal or vice-principal, the provisions of the Education Act hold the director of education accountable for ensuring policies and processes are in place that are consistent with legislation and school board priorities.

It is the role of the director of education to hire, monitor, evaluate and assign school board personnel, either directly or indirectly, through a designate or designates, including the responsibility to determine what positions are required. In this regard, the director may establish the hiring panel for a principal or vice-principal. The director may decide to sit on the hiring panel or delegate responsibility to the appropriate associate director, supervisory officer or manager. The director is also responsible for ensuring the performance management of the board’s principals or vice-principals. It is the director’s role to report on the progress and performance of new staff to the board of trustees.

It is the role of the board of trustees to hold the director of education accountable for ensuring that operational policies and processes are consistent with the Education Act, its regulations and the school board’s polices and priorities. Furthermore, the board of trustees can provide important advice to the director about the key skills a new principal or vice-principal can bring to the board or school community. The director may decide, as a matter of best practice, to collaborate with the board of trustees in setting the criteria and establishing the process for the appointment of principals and/or vice-principals. The criteria used in the selection of principals or vice-principals should reflect the board’s values and vision.

CONCLUSION

Management guru Stephen Covey has said, “Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.”

In an education context, school board trustees will combine their own efforts with the efforts of other members of the school community to enhance student achievement and well-being and maintain confidence in Ontario’s publicly-funded school system.

Good governance requires clarity and a shared understanding of leadership roles and responsibilities. Bill 177 has made a significant contribution to delineating the roles and respective duties of the board of trustees, individual trustees, board chair and director of education. It has also clarified the roles and responsibilities of relevant stakeholders regarding closing gaps in student achievement.

The intent of Bill 177 is to support trustees as system leaders of publicly-funded education in their communities and the Province. Among other things, the new legislation supports the role of trustees as advocates for excellence in education. Trustees are encouraged to act as role models by working collaboratively with their community to shape a vision for their school board that reflects the input of parents, students and community members.