Advisory Councils for School Leadership: Representing Parental Participation in School Decision Making in Manitoba, Canada

1.1 Introduction

Since 1943 all Canadian children between the ages of seven and 16 have been required to attend school. The predominant mechanism for ensuring education for all children has been a publicly funded, provincially controlled school systems. Although each provincial educational system differs somewhat from each of the others, there is also much that they share in common in terms of their structures, curricula and other aspects of the delivery of public education. The form and operation of public school systems is prescribed in detail in the education or public school statues enacted in each province by democratically elected members of provincial legislatures.

Although compulsory education has only been a feature of Canadian education for a little more than fifty years the first recognition of education as a constitutional concern occurred with the British North America Act (BNA) of 1867. While a number of sections of this act have relevance for education it is section 93 which is of particular importance since it deals directly, if somewhat generally, with education. For the purposes of this discussion it is the preamble of section 93 which is important since it clearly establishes education as a provincial responsibility.

93. In and for each Province the Legislature may exclusively make laws in relation to Education…

One of the similarities to be seen across the educational systems of the various provinces is the manner in which each has chosen to exercise its constitutional authority. Each province has created several local educational agencies usually known as school divisions, each of which is administered by a locally elected board of school trustees. These elected school boards serve as agents of their provincial government, and, although it happens rarely, boards can be dismissed by the government. In addition Boards provide the mechanism for local community and parental input into the educational process. As Levin and Young (1994) note "Working within the constraints laid down by provincial legislation and regulations, school boards are responsible for much of the day-to-day administration of schools" (p.40).

School boards have been the formal, statutory avenue through which parents have had input into decision-making either through presentations to the board or election of board trustees; however, there have been other means by which parents could have an impact upon the educational system. One such example found in many public schools of Canada’s provinces has been the equivalent of a home and school or parent/teacher association. These organizations, while providing some link between the parental community of the school and the school administration, frequently found their activities largely confined to raising funds and providing support for extra-curricular activities such as the music program and athletic teams. Lacking any formal statutory legitimation parents relied heavily upon the school administrators and teachers to provide them with announcements of their meetings and to make school facilities available for meetings. The participation of parents in any capacity at all in the affairs of the school was very much dependent upon the existence of active parents and willing administrators.

Nearly thirty years ago, however, the Province of Quebec recognized the role parents should play by the formation of parent councils in all its schools. British Columbia established parent advisory councils in the province’s schools in 1992. Since then legislation mandating structures to support parent involvement have been enacted in other provinces as well (Durkin and Kingdon, 1995,p.3). The Province of Manitoba is one of those provinces.

2.1 Establishment of Advisory Councils for School Leadership

In the early 1990s the Government of Manitoba embarked upon a process of education renewal and on July 4, 1994 the government released Renewing Education: New Directions, A Blueprint for Action. This document, as its name suggests, presented a blueprint for the reform of the province’s educational system, from Kindergarten to the completion of high school, Senior 4. It established the groundwork for new directions and actions in six interrelated priority areas, one of which was described as "Parental and Community Involvement". This area was identified in response "to the requests of parents and the community for the opportunity to play a more significant role in the education of their children" (p.27). To provide this opportunity, A Blueprint for Action outlined new and more meaningful roles for parents and community members which allowed for greater involvement in educational programming and other aspects of school life.

A second government document, Renewing Education: New Directions, The Action Plan was sent to all education stakeholders in January, 1995. The Minister of Education and Training prefaced The Action Plan with this overview: "...this document outlines the key implementation details, time frames, policy changes, and legislative amendments necessary to move educational renewal forward." These implementation details were elaborated upon in The Action Plan for each of the six priority areas established in the earlier "blueprint" document, including Parental and Community Involvement. In order to allow parents and community members greater involvement one significant initiative proposed was the establishment of Advisory Councils for School Leadership. Toward the achievement of that end the following two mandates were set out in The Action Plan (p.23):

Action 7 - Require schools to establish Advisory Councils for School Leadership, as requested by parents, comprising parents and community members.

Action 8 - Require schools to include Advisory Councils for School Leadership in developing school plans and budgets.

These mandates were developed in a description of eight functions to be assigned to the Advisory Councils (p.24). These eight functions became the basis of the Advisory Council’s mandate published in a subsequent document released in November 1994, Guidelines: Advisory Councils for School Leadership which reiterated the mandate of the advisory council. This document clearly stated that the intent of the initiative to establish advisory councils was to "involve parents in shared decision making in areas such as the development of school plans and budgets, school reviews, curriculum, and processes involved in staff hiring and assignment"(p.1).

The Advisory Council mandate was depicted in the following way in the Guidelines (p.2):

The Advisory Council for School Leadership will work in cooperation with school staff, trustees, parents and members of the community in the following ways:

  1. As an advisory structure to principal and staff, presenting parental and community concerns and perspectives on issues related to programs, school planning, budgeting, and the management of the school.
  2. As a means of disseminating information about the school and about parental priorities and of promoting community understanding and involvement in the school.
  3. As a liaison between the school, parents, community and other school support organizations for the purpose of information-sharing and co-operation.
  4. As an advisory structure to the school board in matters relating to the school division.

The Guidelines set out the roles and responsibilities of the Advisory Council for School Leadership as the following (p.2-3):

  1. To advise the principal on school matters as they pertain to school improvement, policies, organization and activities, including the following:
  • curriculum and programs
  • cultural and extra-curricular activities
  • student discipline and behaviour management policies
  • community access to school facilities
  • transportation
  • fund-raising
  • school closures
  1. To provide recommendations to the school board with respect to the process of hiring and assigning principals.
  2. To participate in the development of the annual school plan.
  3. To participate in the development of the school budget proposal, prior to submission to the school board.
  4. To participate in school reviews and to receive feedback on actions taken.
  5. To promote community interest, understanding and involvement in the school and in the governance of the school.
  6. To establish ongoing communication with all parents of the children enrolled in the school and with community members. The Advisory Council is representative of their priorities and concerns.
  7. To establish a means of regular accountability to the school and community for involvement, activities, expenditures and recommendations.

In addition to setting out the mandate, roles and responsibilities of an Advisory Council for School Leadership, Guidelines sets out the roles and responsibilities of a number of individuals and groups: school boards; principals; teachers; and the Minister (pp. 5-6). School Boards are required to: ensure that principals facilitate the establishment of and provide administrative support for the Advisory Councils; provide pertinent and meaningful information about the school division as is required by the Council and appropriate to its mandate; and, receive recommendations put forward by the Councils relating to divisional concerns. Principals are required: to assist in the formation and continuance of the Council; to keep parents and community members informed of annual meetings; to make budget available to the Council for costs related to typing, mailing and printing meeting minutes and other communications; to attend meetings, provide information and facilitate the advisory process when requested; and to insure that annual school plans include parental and community involvement initiatives. For their part teachers must support Advisory Councils as integral parts of the school; keep informed about and communicate with the Council and, when requested, provide information or attend meetings on an ad hoc basis. Finally, the Minister is required to ensure that Advisory Councils for School Leadership are established as requested by parents; inform the public schools about these councils provide guidelines for their establishment and, dissolve councils which are not functioning according to their established mandate as defined by the province.

The Guidelines also addressed three additional, crucial aspects of the functioning of the Advisory Councils for School Leadership. These include communication, representation and operation. Recognizing the importance for communication between the council and the school’s personnel as well as among parents and the following responsibilities were outlined.

  1. The principal will take responsibility to facilitate the process to see that all parents, guardians and community members are fully aware of their responsibilities and rights regarding the Advisory Council.
  2. The principal will take responsibility to facilitate support for the Council in its communication with the parents and community members in its catchment area.
  3. The Advisory Council will take responsibility to obtain representative feedback from the parents and community on the various matters it is reviewing and to inform them fully on the actions of the Council.
  4. The School Board will take responsibility to develop procedures for receiving recommendations from Advisory Councils and for reporting on actions.

The Guidelines established that the Advisory Councils were to be an elected group of parents and community members who "together with staff, students and other interested parties advise the principal and school officials". Representation on the councils was to be determined in the following manner.

  1. At least two thirds of the positions on the Advisory Council must be filled with parents whose children attend the school and who are not employed by the school division. This will ensure that parents’ views are clearly represented and that employees observe conflict of interest guidelines.
  2. In order to provide the view of the community at large up to one third (7 ) of the Advisory Council seats may be filled by community members who live within the school catchment area, but do not have children in the school. Not more than one representative may be a teacher. Where there is a Student Council in the school the President will automatically become part of the community representation.
  3. Councils should be a minimum of seven members in size with exceptions made for small schools.
  4. The principal and one representative teacher will attend Council meetings as ex officio members without voting privileges.

The Guidelines also set out the operation of the council in the following statements

  1. The process for the establishment of an Advisory Council for School Leadership must be initiated if ten or more parents so request.
  2. The Advisory Council for School Leadership will be elected at an annual meeting of community members to be held no later than the third Friday of October.
  3. The Annual meeting shall be organized and advertised by the principal and/or Advisory Council Chair.
  4. Council members must be elected at the Annual General Meeting by those in attendance who are parents of children attending the school or community members in the school catchment area. In large geographical areas, nomination and election by mail may be considered.
  1. At the first meeting of the Advisory council members will choose an executive from among themselves.
  2. Subcommittees can be established at the discretion of the Advisory Council and can include parents, teachers, students, community representatives and individuals with special expertise to help them in developing an informed decision.
  3. The Council will hold regular meetings which will be open to parents and members of the community. Only Council members may vote at the meetings.
  1. The Council shall decide on and publish procedures for conducting meetings, making decisions, bringing recommendations forward and reviewing information. It may establish a constitution to be reviewed periodically.
  2. Terms of office for Council Executives shall be determined by the Council. It is suggested that one and two year terms might overlap to insure both continuity and new representation.

In March 1996 Regulation 54/96 of The Education Administration Act established the regulations governing Advisory Councils for School Leadership in the Province of Manitoba. They essentially matched what was set out in The Guidelines document with some modifications and additions. For example, the regulations described the role of officers on the councils, set the frequency of meetings and established that the councils may make by-laws. In some schools there were already existing Parent Councils when the legislation was enacted. The legislation also provided for these Parent Councils to continue provided that their structure, operation and activities conformed to any policies that the School Board may have had regarding such councils. The legislation was quite clear, however, that a school may only have either an Advisory Council or a Parent Council, not both.

There were at least two changes in the regulations from what had appeared earlier in The Guidelines which might be construed as significant. The earlier document stated that not more than one representative could be a teacher. At the time of the publication of The Guidelines this limitation was a contentious issue. Subsequently, the regulations allowed for an increase in the number of teachers and staff of the school division who were also parents or community members. The number was set at not more than 1/3 of the total number. This number could be increased to 1/2 if the persons entitled to elect members decided to increase the positions available to teachers and other staff. Given that the school’s principal and one of its teachers have non-voting membership status on the Council this change raises some interesting questions about the nature of the "voices" to be heard at meetings and, potentially, the advice emanating from the Council.

The Guidelines also described the mandate of the Council with respect to the budget as one of participation in the development of the school budget proposal before its submission to the school board. The regulations state that one aspect of the Council’s role is to "advise the principal and the school board about an annual budget for the school". This could allow for a much more influential role for the Council in the preparation of the school budget than had been originally conceived.

3.1 Issues Related to Advisory Councils for School Leadership

Advisory Councils for School Leadership have been in operation in the Province of Manitoba for a little more than four years but there are a number of potential issues related to them which can be identified which either have or may begin to appear in the near future. Central to many of the issues is the question of power. While it is probably true, as one local principal indicated, that the primary interest of parents in serving on a council is "to enrich the educational experience of the children in the school" it is also probably fair to say that these newly established Advisory Councils have provided parents with a greater voice in the decision-making of their local school than was previously associated with parent councils or home and school organizations. Parents’ opportunity to enrich their children’s experience has considerably expanded. While they are only advisory, the breadth of decision-making concerns into which they have input covers virtually the full gamut of school activities from financial to extra-curricular. Further, their advisory role extends beyond the local school to the school board whom they can advise with respect to the process of hiring and assigning principals.

Historically, the role of parent councils has been largely confined to fund-raising and chaperoning school events. This role continues. In one Winnipeg school the Council raises money through activities such as community BINGO, chocolate sales, and gift wrap sales, all activities typical of many urban schools. Access to the monies generated by the council is available to the school to fund educational enrichment activities, such as field trips, for which there would not otherwise be supports. Since council meetings are open to the public, parents and community members have the right to attend meetings and offer input into the financial dealings of the council. However, issues of how to spend the money can be the source of conflict and friction within the council itself.

As the legislation notes the functions of the Councils go far beyond fund-raising and financial allocation. In the aforementioned school, the council is represented on the interview-panel hiring administrators for the school and has advised the principal on hiring of school staff. Members of the council also participate on the School Planning Team which develops policies on student behaviour in the school. The Council also oversees the operation of a lunch program for children of working parents and after-school programs in conjunction with the city Parks and Recreation branch. They advise the principal on ways the school facilities my best be utilized for the community and have input into how the school will participate and represent itself in larger community events. The advice of the council is also solicited in the scheduling of professional development days for teachers and members of the Council may advise the School Planning Team on topic-selection for teacher professional development. Additionally, the Council has input into budget development.

It is clear that this Council is exercising a mandate similar to that set out in the legislation. What is interesting, however, is that this particular Council has been in existence for ten years, predating the legislation establishing Advisory Councils by several years. The movement toward giving parents and community members greater voice in the decision-making process of their local schools in this school division had begun well before the enabling legislation was introduced. The legislation establishing Advisory Councils can be understood as moving in a direction already established in some schools in the province and elsewhere in the country, that is the provision of greater input into decision-making for parents at the local school level.

Advisory Councils are subject to the same internal conflicts and external supports or demands are all systems. For example, there may be disagreements within councils about which school projects warrant funding, which individuals the council might urge the board to appoint to a principalship, or which curricular options the council may wish to support. In some instances disagreement between council members has escalated to a point where dissatisfied members have resigned their positions. In one setting, one faction of a council launched a community campaign to support the election of like-minded parents who would oust from the council members in opposition.

Due to external pressures, even the matter of fund-raising by council members has been rendered more complicated by a decision from the Minister of Finance to enforce the 7% Provincial Sales Tax (PST) on monies made through many of the more common fund-raising enterprises. As a result Councils currently stand to lose taxed income and also must establish a mechanism for calculating and paying sales tax. An additional concern in the area of finance is that, because provincial contributions to public education have dropped nearly 20% in the last ten years, some schools are relying upon councils to generate funding to wire schools for computers, install public address systems, purchase music and drama materials and buy physical education equipment. Two concerns arising from this situation are that: 1) schools in more affluent areas are likely to generate more money for better educational experiences than schools in lower income areas and, 2) that Advisory Councils may be used as fund-raising committees to compensate for reduced provincial contributions.

In addition to the many issues which relate to the internal operations of the councils there are also issues related to external relationships. The Advisory Council’s relationship to the school board and its administrators is often an interesting situation. Prior to this legislation parental involvement at the local school level in budget and curricular matters was minimal. Certainly parental views and input related to curriculum, programs and discipline were rarely, if ever, solicited by the principal and school staff. With one legislative leap, parents can now establish a council and thereby have input into these areas of decision-making. A very significant shift in the relationship between school administration and staff has occurred. Parents have gone from a situation where the health and vitality of their parent group was very much linked to whether the principal chose to actively support and facilitate their efforts to one where the principal is now required to provide that support and facilitation should the requisite parental interest emerge.

Thus, the Advisory Council concept presents a challenging role for the principal who is accountable for the operation of the school through the school division’s senior administration to the school board, which in its turn is accountable to the Minister of Education. Advisory Councils, in their turn, have an advisory relationship with the school but are themselves accountable to the Minister. The principalship is a lynch pin position, responsible for heeding advice from the Council and also fulfilling the demands of the school board and the Ministry. It remains to be seen, through continued interactions with the councils whether principals become caught in the conflict between advice of the parents on the Advisory Council and the views of the school board.

The legislation specifically indicates that the council has the right to advise the principal and the school board with regard to the annual school budget. One can only raise the question at this point as to the extent to which this new relationship will either erode the role of the school board and/or lead to increased conflict. Certainly it seems that there is the potential for Advisory Councils to encroach on matters which are the domain of the school board. For instance, in one of Manitoba’s largest divisions, school trustees publicly voiced their concern that Councils were exceeding their advisory powers and placing demands upon school boards in decision-making on pay increases to administrators, student suspensions, transfers of personnel and budget changes.

The potential for these councils to exceed their advisory capacities may also be source of conflict for teachers who may perceive them as representing the views of a vocal minority trying to dictate not only the way in which professional educators teach but also what they should or should not teach.

Thus far, issues related to conflict and power have been raised regarding the new Advisory Councils for School Leadership but the councils also have the potential for achieving many positive outcomes. Greater access to the decision-making process can be a salutory educational experience. Schools stand to gain significantly from the development of even a small cadre of parents who are informed about issues of hiring, curriculum development and budget generation. Greater transparency with regard to the school decision-making process can serve to reduce criticism of school administration and staff, particularly at a time of budget and staff cuts.

Similarly, participation in the decision-making process can lead to greater commitment to the goals of the school from all concerned and an understanding of all the factors involved in very complicated decisions.

Advisory Councils for School Leadership are still in the early stages of their development in the Province of Manitoba. Only time will tell whether they will achieve the goals set out for them as part of the larger reform of the province’s educational system.

Michael Bergsgaard

Annabelle M Mays


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