Dissolving Nova Scotia’s seven English school boards was not supposed to work out this way.

The architect of the plan, Avis Glaze, envisioned that the administrative realignment would include an established “local voice” through “the creation of vibrant School Advisory Councils (SACs) for all schools (or families of schools)” with “enhanced influence” over education decision-making. Principals and teachers were also promised direct access to funding for textbooks and learning materials.

So far, there’s little sign of any shift to school community-based decision-making and ample evidence of a default to centralized control mechanisms and growing concern over the fate of previously mandated forms of public consultation. Perhaps changes are in the works, but – for now – the superintendents rule the roost without the monthly inconvenience of public board meetings.

Today’s senior education administrators tend to get swept up into what New Yorker Thomas Whitby, founder of #edchat, aptly termed the “Education Center World,” and managerial matters far removed from the classroom.

In the case of the Halifax regional school board, moving the system’s headquarters in 2010 to a Burnside corporate park was indicative of that trend. The newly christened corporate entity, “Halifax Regional Centre for Education,” fits well with that systems-thinking mindset.

The best way to fix the entrenched problem would be to look to a Canadian public school system that has successfully implemented responsive school-community governance.

A modern variation of the common school idea known as school-based management (SBM) was first introduced in the Edmonton board of education by superintendent Rolland Jones in the early 1970s. From 1976 until 1995, his successor, Michael Strembitsky, and school planner Alan Parry effectively dismantled a centrally managed school system and operationalized school-based decision-masking. School-level budget allocations were radically shifted, moving from two per cent to 82 per cent of provincial education dollars.

Under superintendent Angus McBeath, school choice was introduced and implemented along with site-based budgeting. Students and parents were offered their choice of schools within the city and, by 2003, 62 per cent of high schoolers and 54 per cent of junior high students attended schools outside their attendance zones. Publishing school-by-school student achievement results improved overall test scores. In his 2008 book Making Schools Work, William Ouchi, a leading UCLA management professor, reported that Edmonton had “the best-run schools” compared to those of many other North American cities.

We missed an opportunity to embrace school-based management in the mid-1990s. Nova Scotia school administrators resisted that innovation and a structural change that came with expanded roles and responsibilities.

Centralization and administrative build-up proved to be powerful forces, strengthened by the consolidation of school boards, the introduction of system-wide testing, the proliferation of special programs, and the spread of program consultants. Superintendents acquired more power by increasing the size of their headquarters staffs, created more non-teaching positions, and this, in turn, led teachers to abandon the classroom. Some 956 (or 10 per cent) of Nova Scotia’s 9,600 teachers were classified in 2016-17 as school-based board administration.

The product of these combined education forces was what leading Australian researcher Bruce Johnson terms “bureaucratic managerialism,” a “seemingly irresistible top-down juggernaut of reform” that essentially precludes any real possibility of teacher autonomy or local control in schools. In Nova Scotia, the current district administrative superstructure consists of 38 senior administrators who consume $4.7 million a year in salaries.

Today’s Edmonton Public Schools remain the best exemplar of the success of school-based management. With a total budget of $1.2 billion, the Edmonton system serves 98,900 students across 213 schools, all operating under school-based budgeting. School principals and governing councils enjoy far greater autonomy and the system budget for 2017-18 allocated some $656 million in block funding to the schools, representing 67.5 per cent of the budget. When school-generated revenues are included, the proportion allocated to the schools inches up to 70.2 per cent.

Educational equity is safeguarded by central office budgetary policy that targets areas of acute need, earmarking funds for special-needs children, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Education (FNMI), and international students, as well as plant operation and maintenance. Some additional revenues are reserved to respond to urgent needs popping up throughout the school year.

School district consolidation is not the only way to achieve cost efficiencies. Cutting the number of districts in half probably makes good economic sense. Greater potential efficiencies, however, can be secured through the proven strategy of joint district consortia for shared services, including financial services, transportation, purchasing, networked learning and community services.

Tinkering with the provincial funding formula, even with more school-based criteria, will not move us closer to reclaiming a system currently dominated by an educational leadership class skilled at controlling the public policy agenda. Look to Edmonton Public Schools for a better way of fostering the “positive politics” of negotiation, collaboration and conflict resolution that truly addresses issues of local concern in schools.

Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is director of Schoolhouse Institute, and author of the AIMS report, Re-Engineering Education: Curing the Accountability and Democratic Deficit in Nova Scotia (February 2018)