School board governance is crucial, but reform is needed

By Glen Argan

As editor of the Western Catholic Reporter, I worked for a board of directors for more than 25 years. The board consistently treated me as its sole employee, never telling me what personnel decisions to make or how to run the newspaper.

Likewise, I worked for three archbishops during my term as editor. Archbishops MacNeil, Collins and Smith never “meddled” in the running of the newspaper nor was I subjected to anything remotely resembling bullying. Occasionally, we had discussions about sensitive issues, mostly personnel matters.

However, the archbishop is the source of faithful teaching in the local Church. I would expect that if the newspaper, a priest or a school board breaks fidelity with the teaching authority of the Church, the archbishop would intervene, vigorously if need be.

A Catholic newspaper should be clearly Catholic; a Catholic school system should also be permeated with Catholic teaching.

People who know me know that I am not a “rubber stamp.” But I worked hard to build unity in the local Church and did so by collaborating, not only with the archbishops, but with many other figures – lay, religious and clergy – in the archdiocese.

I became editor of the WCR twice, first in 1981 when I was a young man of only 28 and secondly in 1991. On both occasions, the paper had been a source of dissension and turmoil in the archdiocese. As editor, I did not squelch debate, but refused to put the WCR on the side of the dissent which had been occurring, dissent with which I did not agree.

The governance of the Edmonton Catholic school district is now a matter of public concern. “Governance” is different than government where, in a democracy, competing political positions clash in parliaments and legislatures. Trustees, among other things, set direction for the school district.

They have one employee – the superintendent. They do not interfere with the superintendent’s day-to-day running of the district. They, nevertheless, hold the superintendent accountable for those operations.

When the board makes a decision, it is the chairperson of the board who speaks publicly on that decisions. In the end, the board speaks with one voice.

On these matters, the governance structure of the school district mirrors that of the Western Catholic Reporter. I will be glad to bring my experience in governance gained at the WCR to the Catholic school board, if I am elected on Oct. 16.

When Archbishop Richard Smith came to Edmonton, he instituted one important wrinkle to the WCR’s governance structure. He asked that the board of directors, at every meeting, have a time of discussion without the editor present.

This innovation needs to be brought to the Edmonton Catholic school board. The trustees need to meet regularly and frequently without administrative staff present. The purpose of such meetings would not be to drive a wedge between the board and top administration; too much of that has been done already. Rather, the board needs to develop its own cohesiveness, its own esprit de corps.

Such meetings would serve two functions. First, they would provide opportunities for increased board solidarity so the wrangling among board members that we have seen in recent years would be less likely to occur. Second, it would reduce the possibility of the administration exerting undue influence over board decisions. Good policies are the result of healthy cooperation between the board and administration, but the board must have a strong sense of its own direction. It’s a matter of balance.

In short, the board should respect the superintendent’s professional autonomy; the board should also be a body that is autonomous from the administration.

If elected on Oct. 16, my first act will be to phone the new trustees and invite them to a meeting that week where they alone are present. If the other trustees accept my invitation, the process of building board solidarity will begin immediately.

Further, it has been suggested that one way to symbolize and to create the board’s autonomy is to redesign the trustees’ meeting room so the board and administration sit facing each other, rather than at the same table. I support that innovation as well. It would improve our system of governance.

(Glen Argan is a candidate for the Edmonton Catholic school board in Ward 75.)

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Glen was the editor of the Western Catholic Reporter in Edmonton, Alberta, for nearly 30 years. He is the winner of numerous journalism awards for editorial and feature writing, layout and design, and general excellence of the WCR. Glen is also the 2015 winner of the Kevin Carr Christian Leadership Award. given by Newman Theological College for his work in promoting a Christian culture in Western Canada. He continues to work toward promoting Christian culture as a candidate for the Edmonton Catholic school board.

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