Posted on January 22, 2010

Hancock Axes Entire Northland School Board

Sarah O’Donnell, Edmonton Journal (Alberta), January 22, 2010

Alberta’s education minister seized control Thursday of the Northland School Division, taking the rare step of disbanding the school board and turfing its 23 trustees.

Dave Hancock appointed an official trustee to take charge of the school district and improve education in the aboriginal communities served by the division. He said he took action because student performance is consistently among the lowest in the province, there’s an abysmal high-school completion rate of 20 per cent and a new $12.5-million school on the Peavine Metis Settlement remains unused.

“The bottom line is the education of students is suffering and we can’t risk losing a generation of young people,” Hancock said.

Northland School Division is unique in Alberta, created by its own provincial legislation. It serves 2,900 children in 23 small, northern aboriginal communities including Anzac, Fort McKay, Wabasca and Peerless Lake. Its student body is 95-per-cent First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

Until Thursday, the chairman of each locally elected school council served on the Northland board. Now, their powers have been transferred to Colin Kelly, appointed by Hancock using his authority under the School Act to work toward the urgent changes that the minister says are needed. Kelly is well-known within Northland, having served as its superintendent from 1990 to 2002. He most recently worked as director of education for Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta.

Steve Noskey, who was the Northland board chairman until Thursday, said Hancock’s decision to remove trustees was a shock. The last time the province disbanded a school board was in 1999, when then learning minister Lyle Oberg removed Calgary public school trustees from their posts, describing the board as “dysfunctional.”

Hancock delivered the news to Noskey, who represents Little Buffalo, and vice-chairman Chris Noskey of Calling Lake during a meeting Thursday morning in Edmonton.

“I think it’s a disrespect of democracy and putting the cart before the horse, and disrespecting the communities that belong to Northland school division,” Noskey said. “Colin Kelly is well-known and well-liked, but it’s not going to make a difference with regards to who steps in there.”

The problems, such as poor test scores, are complex and defy simple quick-fix solutions, Noskey said.

“Our school division only has the kids for a maximum of seven hours per day. It involves discipline, it involves justice, it involves socioeconomic issues within the community. All these issues the teachers have to deal with at school and they shouldn’t be; the parental involvement should be there.”

Hancock said he is aware of the complexities. His said his decision was not a reflection on individual trustees and should not be viewed as a rejection of locally elected school boards by the provincial government.

In Northland, the locally elected school councils will continue to function.

But there could be major shakeups in Northland after consultations with the community. In addition to appointing Kelly as official trustee, Hancock also named a three-person inquiry team to study Northland’s operations.

The three will look at everything from governance and administration to student achievement. They have up to six months to complete their review and report to Hancock.

“I look at it as an opportunity to really highlight the concerns we have in this area, look at the causes behind them, look at the areas of success and ensure every one of these children has the opportunity to get access to the educational resources they need,” Hancock said.

“That is the only way we will break the poverty cycle and break the trend that is established there.”

The news of Hancock’s decision spread among trustees slowly Thursday. Trout Lake’s Elmer Gullion got a call from another trustee who said simply: “‘Did you hear? We’ve all been fired.'”

The trustee in Chipewyan Lake still hadn’t heard the news until a reporter called.

Both communities sit at the end of long gravel roads and neither trustee has e-mail.

Trustees had their last meeting in November and were scheduled to meet Saturday. It has been cancelled.

For Northland students and staff, Hancock’s decision will not immediately affect day-to-day operations, said school division superintendent Pier De Paola, who took the job in December 2008.

The message to parents, De Paola said, is “send your children to school and speak up in terms of the future that you want.

“Hopefully, this kind of crisis, like any crisis, will bring us together to stay focused.”

One of the problems Hancock pointed to included staff turnover. Thirty-two per cent of the teachers who start at Northlands are there four years later, compared to a 62-per-cent provincial average. More than half of its 23 principals this year are new.

Gullion agreed teacher turnover is a serious challenge.

New graduates who can’t find an opening in the city can get hired easily up north. But as soon as they get enough experience in the classroom, they head back home, he said.

This year in Trout Lake, seven out of nine teachers, including the principal, were new, he said. “We’ve been a training ground for all the other schools.”

Gullion said appointing Kelly could be a good choice.

When Kelly was superintendent, he tried to bring change, but got stiff resistance from many principals, Gullion said.

But many of those who resisted then are the same principals who resigned or went elsewhere over the summer, upset at the changes forced on them by De Paola, Gullion said.

“This new (superintendent), he just came in and took the bull by the horns and said, ‘We’re going to have change. If you don’t like it, you have to leave.’ ”

He’s unsure about the decision to remove the board he served on. Trustees were making progress, if slowly, he said.

“I’ve been wanting change for a long time. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. I want to get that quality education for our students. That’s the purpose why I’ve been there all these years.”