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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Smith's Risky History (Part 3) Government Smith Style

This is the third of a three part series about Danielle Smith’s history as a School Board Trustee. This one has the least to do with reproductive rights and is completely off the regular topic of this blog, but in terms of the Alberta Provincial Election, it is probably the most vital. It’s about governance. I can already feel you glazing over.

An issue like conscience rights is something people can wrap their heads around and something they care about with passion. An issue like abortion is like an explosion. Abortion is what I call a “deaf” word, like cancer. People hear it and they go deaf. Although my original questions to all the parties were about abortion, the response from Wildrose made the issue much bigger. It became about using referenda to decide social issues. It became about democracy. It became about governance.

As in my other two posts, Smith’s disastrous history on the School Board gives us some vital information about her. This history matters. On to Part Three.

Part Three: Government Smith Style

As everyone knows, Smith’s only elected political experience is her ten months on the School Board.
I have often wondered why Smith never spoke out against the government's decision to dismiss a democratically elected board. I can't find any evidence of it in the media, and I don't remember her speaking out at the time. For someone saying she's all about democratic rights, it makes me wonder about her definition of democracy, just like I wonder about her definition of pro-choice and pro-gay. Maybe this is another thing she talks a good line on but does nothing about. Other Trustees vilified the government and called the tactic anti-democratic. If the public elected the Board, and the public was sick of them, the public should have been given the opportunity to get rid of them in the next election. Or better yet, someone on the Board could have shown some leadership and found a way through the divisions. No one did. The Chair at the time did not. Smith certainly did not. She was obstructionist, to say the least. I'm not interested in what blame is to be shared among the other Trustees. Smith is the only one of them vying to lead the province right now. Instead of showing leadership, instead of being productive and moving public education forward, she helped tear it apart in Calgary. Having Big Daddy Oberg come in and send the bad girls to their rooms was something almost everyone had an opinion about. Yet, when it happened, Smith was quiet. So was Anderson. Smith did not speak up for democracy.

[addendum April 15. After everyone was fired, Alberta Report said that Lyle Oberg had asked Smith and Anderson to run again which would seem to indicate they were in agreement on many things. Today, Oberg is a key advisor of Smith's, and Oberg just opened a five star private hospital in BC. Neither has a commitment to keeping public education or public health care public.]

The operating budget of the CBE back then was roughly $700,000. That’s not much compared to the provincial budget. And Smith wasn’t keen on getting into the details of it. As I mentioned in Part Two, Jennifer Pollock confirms that Smith and Peggy Anderson took a political stance not to participate in budget meetings. This was part of a broader philosophy about governance and what they felt the role of a Trustee was. Again this tells us something about Smith's style of governing. As a Libertarian, Smith believes there should be less government. Anything that makes less government is justifiable in and of itself. This would include non-participation in budget processes. As a Libertarian, she can say she believes anything. She says she is pro-choice, (See Part One for questions about that) but government shouldn't pay for abortion. But the thing is, Libertarians don't believe government should pay for anything. They don't like taxation. Leave it all to the individual.

In these circumstances, what would happen to public school?

Smith was an enthusiastic supporter of something called the “Carver Model” of governance. (Again, I feel your eyes glazing over, but try to stick with me. I’m getting to the point, honestly.) Right after I was elected, the new Trustees were sent to a weekend of presentations on "How to be a Trustee." I was happy at the time to have any guidance at all. I didn’t know until later it was an indoctrination into how administration wanted us to behave and the Carver Model. I soon learned the job really wasn't what I thought it was, or what it had ever been in the past. It had changed. I thought I had been elected to represent constituents on matters of public education. With the Board moving to the Carver model, I was wrong.

Under Carver, the Board creates policies and something called “Ends statements” that say what the goals of the organization are, but stays out of the details of how to get there. You can see why administrators would approve of this model. They have no elected representatives looking at the gory details of how they do things, the gory details like budget line items. As long as they work within broadly defined policy and meet the Ends Statements, it’s all good.  

The Carver model was not designed for use with an elected political body. (I feel you yawning, try to stay with me. This is the part that matters.) It needed to be creatively adapted so that the Board could still do its job as elected officials and achieve goals Smith and others wanted, like less micro-managing by Trustees, a goal that I shared in some respects. We have to trust, to some extent, that administrators know what they are doing. But this has to be balanced against having enough knowledge and input to be accountable to constituents, both in reporting back to them and carrying out their will. Smith was against any kind of creative adaptation to this model and wanted it used in its most orthodox way.

It might be hard to believe, but this topic was a hot one among Trustees, and could not have been more boring, less understood, or less cared about by Calgarians. I had no idea when I became a Trustee that I would be spending my time on implementing this new governance model. But the adoption of the Carver model changed everything about the way the board worked and how it related to both CBE administration and citizens. What has never been made clear to citizens, even to this day, is that Trustees don't function anymore as representatives of their constituents. They are not someone parents can call and get help from beyond the Trustees acting as receptionists and referring calls to the appropriate administrative person. I think that the adoption of the Carver model is the reason that now, the Trustees have handed over financial decision making power to Administration and try to limit public input on the school system.

And this is how Smith wanted it. As we all know, the devil is in the details, and most of us looking at a fiasco like the “no meet committee” would agree that the person in charge should have had an eye on that. It’s pretty hard to be accountable to the electorate otherwise. I have never met a person who does not think their elected representative should be accountable to them. This is an issue that goes to the heart of the nature of democracy.

Smith says she wanted to join the CBE board of Trustees in part because she felt the Board had been unresponsive to parents. Yet, she was solidly behind a governance model that could only result in less responsiveness. In the article by Maurice Tougas about Smith’s leadership potential mentioned in Part One, Pollock notes that Smith has a history, one that I can personally vouch for, of not showing any interest in constituent issues she didn't agree with. A lot of people lost faith in the capacity of the School Board to represent them. And once that happens, people start to ask why we even have one. That can only help Libertarians achieve less government.

In the Tougas article, Pollock says that, “Smith went her own way as a trustee.” Smith took “the unusual stand of advocating school closings, suggesting up to 30 schools should be closed.” Danielle Smith and I have met only once that I remember, and I'm sure she wouldn't remember it. It was while she was a Trustee. She was visiting my daughter's elementary school, one of the 30 schools she wanted to close. The other parents and I joked that she walked around it with the eyes of a real estate agent. Remember, Smith had also run on her support for charter schools. In Calgary, closed public schools often get leased to charter schools and sometimes private schools. It's a pretty good deal for them. I've never been convinced it's a good deal for public schools. Finding buildings is a pretty significant way to support Charter Schools. If she was talking to parents, she wasn't talking to us about saving our school.

I quit my job as Trustee a few months before the end of my term, stressed out and ill, disillusioned and disappointed at everything I had learned while I was there. I was often alone in my opinions, but the divisions among Board members when I was there never came close to what happened on the Board Smith was part of. We were divided, but civil. I quit when I realized my job was not to be the representative of the people who elected me, even though they thought it was. I quit when I realized I could no longer support what the Board was doing. My job was to be the yes-woman, and I couldn't do it anymore. I felt like a hypocrite. I couldn’t pretend I was a representative of my constituents when the board had basically eliminated any capacity for that, as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t pretend that what I was doing had anything to do with democracy. I was criticized for my decision, but not by many. Most people understood. I made sure my resignation was close enough to the next election that it wouldn't trigger a by-election. I didn't want it to cost the taxpayers money. And I also knew that there was not a single vote result between my departure and the end of the term for this Board that would have been altered by my presence. By that time, votes were generally going 5-2 or 6-1. The school closure issue was finished and we were moving into summer. To me, what would have been worse for Calgary Public was another divisive, bickering board. I wouldn't be that person. Calgary didn't need that again. Sometimes it's better to walk away.

That’s the end of this series. I hope you found it instructive. I've told this story from my perspective and the interpretations I've given are mine alone. I wish I could find my freaking glasses. Sorry about any typos. Apparently I've called Daveberta a bogger instead of a blogger. Sorry Dave. At least I didn't call him a bugger. I correct my mistakes when I find them. In other words, no one's perfect. I don't expect anyone, elected or otherwise, to be perfect. I do expect some integrity. I just want everyone to understand the history of this school board so they can decide for themselves if Wildrose represents their values, and if they think Ms Smith can represent them well. Like I've said, if the best indicator of future performance is past performance, everyone is entitled to know what I know. Blogs can be useful for that. 

Part One is here
Part Two is here

The Abortion Monologues is available as an e-book on Smashwords

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