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School boards across the country have attracted attention over internal discord and for being at loggerheads with provincial governments. But some experts say what happens in school districts is just as common at other levels of government, albeit far less public.

peshkov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Accusations of harassment in the workplace. Refusals to pass a balanced budget. The firing of entire boards.

School boards across the country have attracted attention over internal discord and for being at loggerheads with provincial governments. But some experts say what happens in school districts is just as common at other levels of government, albeit far less public.

"You see clashes between elected officials and bureaucrats all the time and at all levels," said Gerald Galway, a professor of education at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador who also spent 16 years as a senior bureaucrat involved in the province's education system.

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"But I would suggest (it's) much more public at the school board level than behind the closed doors in the board rooms and offices in ministries of government."

The latest school board storms are happening in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, where board trustees have rebuffed recommendations from officials to close individual schools because of falling enrolment.

But there have been a number of examples of friction between school board members and provincial governments, including the axing of school boards in Nova Scotia over the past decade.

There was also a period where the Toronto District School Board came under fire for allegations of misspent funds and a culture of dysfunction and fear, which was outlined in a 2015 report commissioned by the Ontario government.

In B.C., six Vancouver School Board superintendents went on sick leave in recent weeks amid allegations of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

While experts tend to agree the high visibility of school board work leads to negative coverage, there is far less consensus on the reason for the discord, both between elected trustees and bureaucrats, and between boards and provinces.

Charles Ungerleider, a former deputy minister of education in British Columbia, said one source of conflict stems from school boards sometimes being treated as a "buffer" between the provincial government and individual schools.

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"As locally elected politicians, school trustees often feel that they will suffer the consequences of implementing unpopular provincial policies," Mr. Ungerleider wrote in an e-mail.

Former Vancouver trustee Bill Bruneau went further, saying school boards are scapegoats for faltering investments in education.

"When anything goes wrong, the whipping boys and whipping girls are the school boards," Mr. Bruneau said.

He said he wants the province to hand more powers to school boards, empowering them to have a greater say in curriculum development as well as the ability to set taxes and raise their own funds.

But not everyone sees decentralization as a solution. Charles Pascal, a professor at the University of Toronto and former deputy minister of education in Ontario, said provinces, by and large, intervene only when it's absolutely warranted.

"Whenever there's tension more often than not it's because the school board is not managing the resources they get in an effective way," he said.

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In terms of internal tumult between elected and appointed officials, Mr. Ungerleider added that trustees sometimes fail to appreciate the difference between governance and administration.

Elected officials can become inappropriately involved in day-to-day operations instead of just high-level governance direction, especially in light of increasing demands being placed on them, he said.

"Societal (and) parental expectations have increased exponentially. Parents want and expect more for their children, and often find it challenging to see beyond the horizon of their own child's interest," said Mr. Ungerleider.

Claude Lessard, an education scholar at the University of Montreal, agreed that micro-management on the part of trustees can stoke tensions with bureaucrats. He added that the same is true at higher levels of government, though it's much less visible.

"It's the classic struggle between those whose legitimacy is democracy and others whose legitimacy is expertise," he said.

As for clashes with the province, Mr. Lessard said provincial governments sometimes take an aggressive stance against a school board to show the public they're defending education.

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"In the political game, you have to find someone who's responsible," he said. "If it's not the provincial government and not the minister of education, well, then it's the school board."

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