Two ways NS could have better schools for less money

For years, school enrollments in Nova Scotia have plummeted while school board budgets rose faster than inflation. Last winter, the Dexter Government asked boards to think about ways to operate with less. The boards and their colleagues in arms, the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, reacted with a Kill the Friendly Giant strategy.

In the end, the government imposed modest cuts, and the boards will continue to operate as they have for decades. It was a missed opportunity for reform.

Well, before the notion of school reform goes dormant for another five years, here are two ways school boards could work better for less money.

1. End the demeaning way we hire new teachers

If a freshly minted education graduate wants to make a career as a teacher in Nova Scotia, she must begin with three to five years of purgatory on the substitute teachers’ list. This often means moving back in with mom and dad and waiting by the phone each morning to see if she’ll be working that day at substandard pay. It means turning down other work so as to be available when the phone rings.

A young Cape Bretoner I know graduated from Mount Alison five years ago and approached the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board about a teaching position.

“You can go on the substitute teacher’s list,” he was told.

“I have a chance to teach full time in Mexico this coming year,” he replied, “How about if I do that for a year and then come back and apply for a job with the board? I’ll have learned a new language, gotten to know a new culture, and this will make me a better teacher.”

“That’s great,” the board official told him. “And when you come back, you can go on the substitute list.”

My young friend taught in Mexico for two years, then for three more in Colombia. He’ll never return to Cape Breton, because he had too much self-respect to mooch off his parents while the school board tossed him two or three days of work a week for three to five years.

The substitute teacher’s list operates as a negative sieve for potential teachers, culling those with the greatest ambition, energy, and self-respect. It is also rife with opportunities for corruption, because those four years on the substitute list offer no end of opportunities to favor family members, friends, and flatterers.

No other organization of comparable size hires its staff in this retrograde manner. School boards should adopt modern personnel practices, subjecting candidates to objective testing, rigorous interviews, careful reference checks, and probationary hiring. That’s how smart organizations hire the best people, and if students need anything, it’s the very best teachers we can attract.

2. Get superintendents, middle managers, and non-teaching principals out of the union.

Many Nova Scotians would be surprised to learn that superintendents, directors, sub-system supervisors, principals, vice-principals, department heads, and various consultants and coordinators working on secondment in the Department of Education all belong to the Teachers’ Union and are subject to the collective agreement.

Do I even have to spell out how completely crazy this is? Is there another organization in the western world that operates this way? The Superintendent is the Chief Executive Officer of the school board. Does the CEO of Bell Canada belong to the Communications, Energy, and Paper Workers’ Union? Does Donald Sobey belong to the Food and Commercial Workers’ Union? Does Joe Shannon carry a membership card in the Teamsters’ Union? The very idea is insane.

This cozy interlocking membership doesn’t simply serve students and parents badly, it’s equally a rip-off for teachers. A teacher needs a union that will honestly represent her interests when conflicts arise with a principal, curriculum supervisor, or superintendent. The school board, parents, and students need to know that the people managing the school system will not kowtow to the union. When the same people manage the union and the school system, no one can have confidence.

Note that neither of these reforms aims directly at saving money. But one would insure that the best possible people take on the most important jobs in the school system, the jobs at the heart of the system’s purpose. The other would ensure that managers manage free from relationships fraught with conflicting interests. Both reforms would make our schools run more efficiently, and that would save the system money.

These reforms won’t happen any time soon, because they require a government with the gumption to take on the union in a what would surely be a tough fight. The Dexter Government may not stray far from the center of the political road, but it has shown no appetite for taking on its traditional benefactors in the labor movement. The government underestimates the extent to which rural Nova Scotians are ready for a government that will cut the school boards’ garments to fit the cloth.