School boards are populated with a blend of outspoken parents, aspiring city councillors and retired educators. Some hold their seats for decades and many are highly eccentric. But no one doubts they care about education.
"You definitely don't do it for the money or the glamour," says Catherine Fife, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, who has served for seven years as a trustee on the Waterloo Region District School Board.
But now trustees are in a fight for political survival. As schools struggle with dwindling enrolment numbers, a new model is taking hold, with provinces assuming many of school boards' functions. Governments have been picking away at boards, with their salaries, office budgets, political posturing and rambling board meetings, for more than a decade. The dollars they do get come with more strings attached.
"We used to have some local taxation authority, which has been lost to the province. We used to bargain more locally with our employee groups, and the bulk of that has now gone to the provincial level," says Patti Bacchus, chair of the Vancouver School Board.
The last role left for trustees is that of advocate, but a new law in Ontario blocks trustees from publicly criticizing board decisions, and the Vancouver School Board's trustees nearly risked their jobs taking a stand this summer against British Columbia's Ministry of Education over funding.
Looking to international models, critics argue that eliminating school boards would generate millions of dollars of savings each year in every province, and remove a layer of bureaucratic red tape.
"School boards and trustees are in the midst of an evolutionary process," says Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow. "Ours is far from a functioning model."
Mr. Matlow says he believes that boards should be swallowed by local government. But would we be throwing the babies out with the school boards?
"People like that local person to either appeal to or rail against," says Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a parent advocacy group based in Toronto. "I think without school boards we'd be missing a really important level of government."
The global recession, however, has really put them on the firing line, as financial strife encourages decentralized control, according to Gerald LeTendre, head of the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University, and an expert in international education. "I think we're going to see local control of education reduced" across the globe, he says.
Yet based on international indicators, Canada currently gets more bang for its buck than just about any other country. Measured in U.S. dollars, Canada spends $7,774 per secondary school student compared to $8,763 in the United Kingdom, or $10,821 in the United States, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Despite its relatively low level of investment, Canada is ranked fifth on the United Nations' Education Index, with the U.S. and the U.K. lagging behind in 19th and 28th place.
The question is whether school boards are holding Canada's schools back from being still more effective - or whether they're the secret of its success.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The principle of public education, and the idea that a portion of property taxes should be put aside for schools, took hold in Canada in the early 19th century.
"That's what triggered the emergence of school boards," says Daniel Buteau, co-ordinator of primary and secondary education for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. "You had this revenue, it had to be managed at the local level and it had to be devoted to education."
Gradually trusteeship has become an important facet of local politics, a training ground for city councils and a way of establishing a presence: Parents might bump into their local trustee at the grocery market or on the playground, a closeness that earns trustees both reverence and resentment.
Trustees attend meetings with parent groups and community members at their local schools, and each month they participate in a number of board and committee meetings, in which a fluent grasp of each asterisk and addendum that dots hundreds of pages of reports and briefing documents is the only guaranteed way to follow the conversation. The whole circus sometimes stretches on past midnight, as trustees debate relatively unimportant minutiae as if they were matters of national security. At one recent Toronto District School Board meeting, running two hours behind schedule, trustees spent nearly 30 minutes debating whether or not to debate an item.
Pay scales vary from province to province and board to board. Trustees earn anywhere from $5,000 to $45,000 a year, depending in part on the size of the student population. Their schedules can be demanding, and many must also work a full-time job.
It was in the mid-1990s, when the provinces began taking over school boards' taxation powers, that trustees' roles began shrinking and critics came out of the woodwork.
This grim picture may explain why in Toronto's upcoming election, half of the races for seats on the Toronto Catholic District School Board are uncontested, as of this week.
Mr. Matlow says his biggest frustration has been watching the city and the school boards often work against each other - for example, a years-long war over school pools nearly saw many of closed, as both parties argued over who should pay to maintain them.
"If we're really trying to put money into the classroom it seems to me that that's a level of bureaucracy that's totally unnecessary," says Doug Player, a former West Vancouver school superintendent.
He suggests that by giving control of the schools to the municipalities and appointing an education advisory panel instead, local governments could more efficiently care for their citizens. "If you had a municipal focus on children and learning rather than just sewers and roads, I think you'd have a better municipality," Mr. Player says.
With appointees who are professionals in education or accounting, as well as some parents, he said, municipal leaders could balance the panel's expertise and avoid the budget battles that are plaguing boards across the country.
MOMENTUM - BUT IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION?
Such efforts to minimize layers of pedagogical bureaucracy are gaining traction globally. Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has expressed his support of mayoral control of education, a model embraced by Chicago and New York.
The new coalition government in England has extended an offer to all its state schools to become independent academies, which would allow them to break free of local councils.
Closer to home, the movement to abolish school boards recently gained some ground when a political party, Action démocratique du Québec, introduced the idea as part of its platform.
On the other hand, New Brunswick abolished its school boards in the 1990s, but the change was not well received. Since then District Education Councils, which fill a similar role but are unpaid, have taken their place.
"There is a concentrated effort to question the role of democratically elected trustees," says Ms. Fife, the Ontario boards' association president. "There is a movement in this country ... to increasingly have a decentralized and standardized model of education. Trustees stand in stark contrast to that model."
Could this messy, imperfect system really be what sets Canada apart?
"We still have one of the world's top-performing school systems," says Ms. Bacchus, the Vancouver board chair, "and I do think that is largely connected to that local representation and engagement that we have. It's not just a bureaucratic service that people feel so removed from. "People feel engaged, and that they can make change."