The original purpose of the school councils was to provide advice to principals and school boards, but a recent survey shows that they often take an active role in many other areas. A 2010 report on Ontario’s School Councils, entitled “Connecting with Community and Creating Welcoming Schools”, found that increasingly school councils across Ontario are involved in community building through social events, communicating with parents and fundraising.
In the survey conducted by People for Education, 75% of school councils ranked “enhancing communication between school and parents” as their most important role. When asked how they spent most of their time, the majority of school councils reported fundraising as their number one activity. Among the findings of the survey, 84% of school councils reported that their principals always or often notify them about education changes. The report says that policies covering the role of the school councils may need to be adjusted in a number of ways: to support a new emphasis on communication; to reflect research which shows that it is parents’ involvement with children at home that has the greatest impact on student achievement; and to assist councils in managing their role as fundraisers for their schools.
In 2010, the Ministry of Education released “A Parent Engagement Policy for Ontario Schools”. This policy acknowledges the important role of parents in education. The policy recommends that parents should, among other things, provide home conditions that support children as learners at all grade levels, supporting parent peers and taking parent leadership roles. It is recognized that as part of parent engagement and partnership, some parents play a leadership role and serve on school councils.
Under the Education Act, all school boards in Ontario are required to establish a school council for each school they operate. The Education Act also requires principals to fulfill certain obligations and duties with respect to school councils.
In recent years, serious concerns have arisen with respect to the role and responsibility of members of the school council. Are members of the school council required to be elected? What is the principal’s role in establishing the school council and assisting in its operation? Is the school council required to develop by-laws governing the conduct of its affairs? Is the school council required to keep minutes and records of all meetings? To what extent can the school council direct the principal to undertake certain tasks or activities? This article is intended to provide a practical guide regarding school councils, setting out the duties and responsibilities of relevant stakeholders, including parent members, school staff and the principal.
PURPOSE OF SCHOOL COUNCILS
Ontario Regulation 612/00, entitled School Councils and Parent Involvement Committees, and Ontario Regulation 298 governing the Operation of Schools together address three key areas: the purpose of school councils, operational matters and the obligation of principals and school boards to consult school councils. Regulation 612/00 confirms that school councils are advisory bodies and clearly provides that they may make recommendations to their principals or school boards on any matter. The regulations require principals and boards to report back on how the recommendations have been taken into account.
The purpose of school councils is, through the active participation of parents, to improve pupil achievement and to enhance the accountability of the education system to parents.
SCHOOL COUNCIL MEMBERSHIP
The membership of a school council will change from year to year. At the beginning of each school year, potential new council members will be recruited for election and elections will be held. Ideally, the membership of the school council will reflect the diversity of the school community. Parents and guardians are required to form the majority of members on the council. All members may bring before the council the issues or concerns of the groups that they represent and provide a voice for those groups.
Ontario Regulation 612/00 provides that a school council will consist of the following members:
- a majority of parents, as specified in a by-law of the school council or by the board if such a by-law does not exist;
- the principal or vice-principal of the school (the principal may delegate membership responsibility to the vice-principal);
- one teacher employed in the school, other than the principal or vice-principal;
- one non-teaching employee of the school;
- one student, in the case of secondary schools (optional for elementary schools);
- one or more community representatives appointed by the elected council;
- one person appointed by an association that is a member of the Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations or other similar association.
ELECTION AND TERM OF OFFICE
Regulation 612/00 provides that the election of members of the school council must be held annually, within the first 30 calendar days of each school year. The date of the election is to be fixed by the chair or co-chairs of the school council, after consulting the principal.
On behalf of the school council, at least 14 days before the date of the election, the principal is required to give notice of the date, time and location of the election to every parent of a student who, on the date the notice is given, is enrolled in the school.
The election of parent members of the school council is required to be by secret ballot. The term of office is for one year. The person elected as a member of the school council will hold office from the date of the first meeting after the elections in the school year, until the date of the first meeting of the school council in the next school year.
A chair or co-chair of the school council must be a parent member of the council and is required to be elected by the members of the council. A person who is employed by the school board that established the council cannot be the chair or co-chair of the council.
A school council is required to hold at least four meetings during the school year. It must meet within the first 35 days of the school year after the elections are held, on a date fixed by the principal.
All meetings of the school council are required to be open to the public. It is entitled to hold its meetings at the school. A meeting of the school council cannot be held unless:
- a majority of the current members of the council are present at the meeting; and
- a majority of parent members of the council are present at the meeting.
The principal is required, on behalf of the school council, to give notice of the dates, times and locations of meetings of the council to every parent of a student who, on the date the notice is given, is enrolled in the school.
The school council is required to consult with parents of students enrolled at the school about matters under consideration.
School council members will not be paid for their work on the school council. However, each board, in consultation with the school council, must develop reimbursement policies regarding the expenses of school council members incurred as part of school council business.
Every school council is required to make certain by-laws. For example, a by-law is required that governs election procedures and the filling of vacancies in the membership of the school council. In addition, a by-law is required that establishes rules regarding participation in school council proceedings in cases of conflict of interest.
MINUTES AND FINANCIAL RECORDS
The school council is required to keep minutes of all of its meetings and records of all of its financial transactions. The minutes of meetings and records of transactions are required to be kept for a minimum of four years. These minutes and records must be available at the school for examination without charge by any person.
Regulation 612/00 prohibits school councils from being incorporated. A school council already belongs to a corporation, which is the district school board that established the council. School councils are advisory groups to their principals and their boards. They have been established to provide a vehicle for parents to express their views about how to improve student achievement and to ensure that parents can actively participate in the education of their children at a local level. The law does not permit councils to be incorporated.
Some school councils may decide to include fundraising as one of their activities. Fundraising activities may be conducted as long as they are in accordance with board policies and guidelines and the funds raised are to be used for a purpose approved by the board.
School councils should be aware that, because the school board is a corporate entity and the school is not, any funds raised by the school council and any assets purchased with those funds belong legally to the board.
Every school council is required annually to submit a written report on its activities to the principal of the school and the school board. If the school council engaged in fundraising activities, the annual report must include a report on those activities. The principal is required to give a copy of the report to every parent of a student who is enrolled at the school.
ROLE OF THE PRINCIPAL
The principal’s involvement and interaction with the school council are key to the council’s success. As a member of the school council and leader of the school community, the principal can provide the guidance and support necessary to help the council to achieve its goals.
The principal is required to attend and participate in every school council meeting or delegate this responsibility to a vice-principal. Principals (or vice-principals) are not eligible to vote on any matters being discussed by their school councils, as it is not appropriate that the principal vote on the advice that he or she is given by the school council.
Regulation 298 under the Education Act sets out specific responsibilities of the principal with respect to school council. Among other things, a principal is required to:
- provide for the prompt distribution to each member of the school council of any materials received by the principal from the Ministry that are identified by the Ministry as being for distribution to the members of the school council;
- post any materials distributed to members of the school council in the school in a location that is accessible to parents;
- make the names of the members of the school council known to the parents of the students enrolled in the school, by publishing those names in a school newsletter or other means likely to bring the names to the attention of parents; and
- act as a resource person to the school council and assist the council in obtaining information relevant to the functions of the council.
The principal is also required to consider each recommendation made to him or her by the school council and advise the council of the action taken in response to the recommendation. The principal may delegate any of his or her powers or duties as a member of the school council to a vice-principal of the school.
Furthermore, the principal is required to solicit the views of the school council on the establishment or amendment of school policies and guidelines that relate to student achievement or the accountability of the education system to parents, including the school’s code of conduct and school policies or guidelines regarding appropriate dress for students.
Improving student achievement through the active involvement of parents is a critical role of school councils. Increasingly, school councils across Ontario are involved in a range of other activities, such as community building through social events, communicating with parents and fundraising. It is clear that the role of the school council is advisory and designed to assist and support the principal. Under the provisions of the Education Act, the principal is responsible for the management and administration of the school.
Although the school council has a clear role in providing advice and recommendations on certain aspects of the school, the ultimate authority to make particular decisions rests with the principal. The principal’s statutory duties cannot be assumed or delegated to the school council.
It is important that principals demonstrate a collaborative and supportive approach to working with their school council. Strong communication between the principal and his/her school council is essential for the council to be successful in accomplishing its objectives. It is also critical for the principal and the chair or co-chairs of their council to find an effective method of working together outside of regular meetings.
Where the principal develops a strong relationship with the school council, parents are more likely to become involved in the school community, which will, in turn, have a significant impact on the overall effectiveness of the school.