Alberta government contemplates bill to give school superintendents new powers

The Alberta government is considering introducing fall legislation that would allow school superintendents to police themselves.

For more than 25 years, the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) has hoped for more legal power to decide what qualifications, training and continuing education superintendents should have.

Becoming a regulatory body would also allow the college to investigate members who are accused of wrongdoing. Right now, the provincial government conducts investigations and hearings if a superintendent is accused of incompetence or misconduct.

CASS executive director David Keohane said earlier this month that membership in the organization is now voluntary. If the law required superintendents to become members, the organization could provide better assurance to the public by holding superintendents accountable to quality standards and a code of conduct.

“Our organization is passionate about being the best it can be for the public and we will be ready to hear from any government, any decision about making this dream of CASS happen,” Keohane said.

But not all players in Alberta’s education system support the idea. Some question how the move could affect the autonomy of elected school boards.

Others are puzzled about why government consultations took place in August while educators and school system leaders were engrossed with preparing for students to return to classes after a five-month absence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pembina Hills school board opposes the move, chair Jennifer Tuininga said.

“This is a topic that requires full consultation and transparency between the government and boards and CASS,” she said. “I don’t think it’s something that should have proceeded at this time given everything else that’s been going on.”

Minister’s email says she’s considering fall legislation

On July 31, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange wrote to school boards and provincial education associations saying the government was examining CASS’s professional and regulatory role as the fall legislative session approached, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

In early August, superintendents and central office staff at school boards were asked to complete a survey, and some groups were invited to discussions with the government, documents show.

CASS also began circulating a proposal and question-and-answer sheet in August. The sheet also says the government is considering legislation this fall.

The sheet says the college has no legal authority to regulate its members, unlike organizations such as the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) and the Association of School Business Officials of Alberta.

The college proposes Alberta adopt a model like Saskatchewan, where the League of Educational Administrators, Directors and Superintendents (LEADS) regulates school division leaders.

“By expecting members to engage in career-long professional learning, apply educational research, and work collaboratively with each other, CASS as a professional organization would assure the public that its members possess the professional capacity, expertise, and commitment to foster a shared responsibility for student learning and system improvement,” the document said.

It also said the government’s investigation process for superintendents accused of misconduct takes too long — that cases can take two or three years to resolve.

CASS executive director Keohane said Alberta’s current system also makes it too easy for superintendents who have done wrong to hop between school divisions if they are fired.

Keohane wouldn’t say if CASS wants the power to certify superintendents, or whether that function is better left with the government.

The college proposes any certified teacher in a leadership position working for a school division or charter school who is considered out-of-scope for membership in the ATA would be mandated to be a CASS member.

Teachers who belong to the ATA and have managerial roles could be voluntary “associate” members.

Keohane said the college has about 400 members now who are superintendents and assistant superintendents, and he doesn’t see total membership numbers, or the fees they pay, changing substantially.

Critics question timing of move

Earlier this month, the Alberta School Boards’ Association had a special meeting to consider the issue of whether its members supported CASS becoming a regulatory body.

The majority of member school trustees said they would support the government going forward with legislation, according to a statement from the association.

The Barrhead-based Pembina Hills school division did not support the move.

Board chair Tuininga said superintendents are school boards’ sole legal employee. CASS becoming a regulator could create ambiguity about who superintendents answer to, she said.

She’s also concerned about boards footing the bill for potentially more CASS membership fees.

Trustees should be included in any investigations or disciplinary hearings into superintendent misconduct, she said.

In 2017, Pembina Hills’ board parted ways with a former superintendent facing allegations of harassment and fraud.

Alberta Teachers’ Association President Jason Schilling said he doesn’t understand why the government is exploring the idea of allowing superintendents to self-regulate during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sam Martin/CBC)

ATA President Jason Schilling said he is concerned creating a separate regulatory body for teachers in leadership positions could divide the profession.

“By giving them their own professional body we make the superintendency a profession unto itself. That doesn’t exist within the education system. All educators, or all the people who work in education in leadership roles in schools, are teachers and we need to keep it that way.”

The association is wary after Premier Jason Kenney said during the 2019 provincial election campaign he supported the idea of removing principals from the organization. That move could potentially excise thousands of members — and their membership fees — from the association.

Schilling is also confounded by the timing. The college has been advocating for legislation for decades — why move now, in the middle of a pandemic, he wonders.

Keohane said he also doesn’t know why the government is exploring the idea now.

He denies that it’s in exchange for CASS’s public support of the United Conservative Party government’s policies.

The college has publicly endorsed the government’s pandemic school re-entry plan and a new school funding formula — plans other education organizations have critiqued.

Keohane said the college supports policies that are in students’ best interests, not governments or parties.

The education minister’s press secretary, Colin Aitchison, wouldn’t confirm when or if legislation is coming, or divulge any details under consideration.

“The government is consulting widely, and will let Albertans know should a change be decided upon,” was the one-line response to a list of questions from CBC.

The fall sitting of the legislature is slated to start on October 20.

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