Conversations among parents outside their kid’s school typically turn to class assignments, lice, bullying and the sorry state of playgrounds, often becoming a 10-month riff in 'What are ya gonna do?' futility.
Like social media, these narratives often reinforce perceptions, but if you really want to effect change in your child’s education, says Ailsa Pehi, take those conversations to parent governance. The Vice-President of the English Parents' Committee Association (EPCA) says “thousands of parents volunteer their valuable time in loving, meaningful ways, part of the lifeblood of schools, helping in libraries, cafeterias, trips, or even in class.”
But if you want policy changes, to see budgets, fees, staffing and subject time allocations reflect what you are talking about, “it won’t happen in the parking lot, certainly not on Facebook. Those conversations start at Governing Boards,” legal entities established by Quebec’s Education Act.
Pehi first raised her hand for GB election at Dunrae Gardens 14 years ago. “I had no idea what I was in for,” she recalls, going from parent volunteer to GB member, elected commissioner (in the last school board election way back in 2014), Parent Committee delegate, and EPCA board member. “Parents don’t know how important their voices are. They just need to speak up.”
Begins with Governing Board
It begins with GB, groups of parents with teachers and principals at monthly meetings in a staff room or classroom, considering important issues directly affecting you and your children.
Meetings are public, as are Parent Committees (PCs), and open to all non-members – but not to intervene. You can attend any meeting at any school at any board. The only exceptions are in camera sessions, usually to address issues that may prejudice an individual. There are lighthearted moments, like when a Suburban reporter witnessed a high-ranking board administrator literally press an ear up to the door of an in camera PC meeting, while the board chair and an elected commissioner guffawed.
Otherwise, go observe who's making decisions at your kid’s school or join and find your own voice.
Rules about publicizing meetings, minute-keeping, quorum and more ensure they are valid.
No slapdash affair set up by a principal and a few know-it-all parents, Governing Board is constituted in law, set up to prioritize parent voices in school leadership, the nitty gritty detailed in the remarkably easy-to-read Quebec Education Act.
Andrew Ross has also spent years implicated in all aspects of parent governance, on multiple Governing Boards, as a Parent Delegate, and now completing his second two-year term as EMSB Parent Commissioner on the EMSB council (which lost its status when the board went under trusteeship) as one of four parent commissioners – primary, secondary, special needs, and at-large.
“We definitely have a different constituency,” he says. Whereas regular commissioners drum up votes in a neighborhood from anyone on the electoral list, parents must be elected by fellow Delegates chosen via local GBs and parent populations. Parent Commissioners bring unique perspective and credibility to council debates, directly representing key stakeholders of the institution.
Currently, Parent Committee powers are limited. “PCs are advisory bodies that can recommend,” he says, even conceiving stellar proposals while putting parent issues forward. But like their umbrella association EPCA, “they have no decision-making power. That's not to say that PCs are not wonderful groups of people doing important work, but there's no real power… Many people learn that pretty quickly and that's why there's such a large turnover in participation,” about 50 percent annually.
Sometimes board councils consult PCs to gauge parent zeitgeist, or maybe just give their own decisions an imprimatur of credibility.
EPCA represents parents at eight of nine English school boards in Quebec, representing some 100,000 students. EPCA President and EMSB Parent Committee member Katherine Korakakis says “Parents are encouraged to use their voice, and not be intimidated by politics.”
“Staying out of the political debate is hard when everybody else wants to pull you in,” says Korakakis. “You have to remember you represent parents and we don’t have the final say; we are the parents’ messenger.” The provincial parent association has though, boosted its relevance in relations with government and partnerships with other parent advocates like the Fédération des comités de parents du Québec representing parents in French schools.
Above the political fray
Notably, EPCA has stayed above the legal and political fray in the Bill 40 scrap between Quebec City and English school boards says Korakakis, declaring support early on for any efforts to maintain control of institutions, insofar as not a single dollar is taken from students to do so.
Ross says politics “needs to go” from Governing Boards, Parent Committees, school boards and councils, as it thwarts progress on files and stymies good people from getting involved. “As Parent Commissioners we often have terrific initiatives that never even make it to agenda, face multiple procedural – and other – roadblocks,” even efforts to reduce partisanship or increase parent involvement.
“Parent Commissioners don’t typically hold the balance of power. We’re only four of 15 councillors and it depends on political alignments… We can be useful in leveraging support but it's actually difficult to propose initiatives because we don't have critical mass to lobby.”
Parent Commissioners do bring decision-making credibility in a forum among those without children in the system, or who do have children but not in the board on which they sit. All voices have value, but if council chooses to close a school, launch programs or remove transportation, all voices have value, but stakeholders should know who presumes to speak for them.
Pehi says boards and committees conducting meetings online has now further opened up governance, boosting participation by removing distance and availability obstacles. “What would be best is getting more parents involved, each wearing a different hat so we can have a diversity of voices at the table.”
Ross says Parent Commissioners “have to get used to the idea that they're now politicians and have to play a bit of a political game. But parents typically don’t get involved through this stream to become politicians. Unfortunately, you need some savvy to be successful.”
There is still push and pull between political councils and parents that possibly turns people off from participating, but parents should overcome that reticence to participate and deliver the message Korakakis speaks of: from erstwhile parking lot discussions to Parents Committee, to councils, and to EPCA to represent all Quebec parents in English schools to government and other education partners.
“I hear people saying it over and over: ‘I don't think I can do this’,” says Korakakis. “But every parent can do it. You're going to get an email from your principal or your DG before school starts, inviting you to the Annual General Assembly where it all begins. Go, listen, stick your hand up and introduce yourself. That's how it works, that's how it happens.”
You don't necessarily need to be a Robert’s Rules of Orders maven, but it helps to have basic understanding of how meetings work and that's easily learned. “We'd love to see a mix of new and older parents” says Pehi, “maybe a buddy-type system pairing someone with experience with new parents for transition into the new year.”
Sometimes parents new to GB are taken aback seeing principals’ authority challenged, or their child's favorite teacher argue against their beliefs. But it’s when you cotoyer against each other, good and bad, that progress can occur.
The process can also vary from school to school, as does the grasp of rules and procedures themselves. In 2018 a Suburban reporter saw a parent elected to a Montreal high school GB with a large group of parents – from another school – walking into the auditorium, checking a ballot and leaving the building. Another did not vote for Parent Committee delegates, the principal stating they would instead “split duties” between GB members.
And that complaining in the parking lot? “Yeah it’s fun,” agrees Pehi. “But guess what? It does zero. Get on Governing Board.”
“Show up, step up, speak up.”