A lack of communication and long-term planning, low morale and an authoritative, top-down management style that leaves administrative employees further down the totem pole out of the decision-making loop are among the issues affecting the School District of Mystery Lake, according to a governance and organizational review of the division by MNP (formerly Meyers Norris Penny) that was released on March 19.
Recommendations to alleviate and eliminate these issues include developing a formal orientation and training process for the board of trustees, creating a communication and consultation process to engage stakeholders, and developing a complete and consolidated policy manual for the school district to use as the single source of board policy, as well as a policy manual for administration. Other recommendations included developing a process to evaluate the board and to recruit, mentor and evaluate the superintendent, implementing a succession planning and leadership development program for other administrator positions, and creating two new positions to enhance board governance, stakeholder communications and community relations if they can be accommodated within the budget. Otherwise, it is recommended that those responsibilities be assigned to existing positions within the administration to minimize costs.
"The province has accepted all of the recommendations contained in the report," said Naline Rampersad, a spokesperson for Minister of Education Nancy Allan in an e-mail to the Thompson Citizen. "The minister recently had the opportunity to meet with the board of trustees of the Mystery Lake School District. She thanked them for their cooperation throughout this process and their continued cooperation as they move forward in implementing all of the recommendations."
Alexander Ashton, chair of the board of trustees, said in a written statement on March 23 that the school board accepts the report and its recommendations.
"The clear message from the community was that they wanted to see positive change," Ashton said. "A lot has happened since the time period covered by the report. That is why as chair I have requested that a follow-up assessment be made, to allow the board and our new admin team a chance to assess how much progress has been made and how much more we need to do in the next couple of months."
The review process included a document review of items such as board agendas and minutes, evaluation forms, collective agreements and job descriptions as well as interviews and focus groups with people both within and outside of the education system and surveys of the board of trustees, other district employees, parents, students, and other residents of the district. Meyers Norris Penny also received three responses to their request for written submissions from MacDonald Youth Services - Kisewatisiwin Services, the Thompson Teachers' Association and the Hello Parents Network.
Problems facing the School District of Mystery Lake identified in the report included declining enrolment, sub-standard four-year graduation rates and an increased need for programming such as English as an Additional Language and special needs programming. According to the review report, there were 2,912 students enrolled in the district for the 2011-12 school year, 52 fewer than the previous year and 426 fewer than the 3,338 who were enrolled in the 2007-08 school year. Mystery Lake lagged far behind the province as a whole in terms of four-year graduation rates, with the 2011 rate reported at 50.1 per cent, compared to 82.7 per cent for the province as a whole, with student transience, attendance and loss of natural resource sector jobs, particularly mining, contributing to the lower rates. The report also noted that students taking longer than four years to complete high school pushes the graduation rate downwards. At the same time that enrolment – and, consequently, funding – is declining, however, Thompson's ethnic make-up is seeing increased numbers of aboriginal people and visible minorities, some of who require programming with higher resource requirements.
Considering the timing of the surveys MNP distributed – April 2011 – and when interviews with focus groups were conducted – last November and December – it's little surprise that some of the significant trends and events identified included dissatisfaction with instability and turnover, desire for increased communication and consultation, and issues with the environment, culture and climate at the School District of Mystery Lake, given the uproar over former R.D. Parker Collegiate principal Ryan Land that dominated the 2010-11 school year and spilled over into the early part of this one.
Surveys and interviews conducted by MNP indicated that turnover and perceived lack of stability at the school district's senior leadership levels, including superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal and vice-principal positions was the most significant trend in recent years. Respondents also expressed a belief "that decisions are made using a top-down approach that does not consult or collaborate with this related to or affected by those decisions," the report said. "Teachers in general do not feel their experience or expertise is being considered or used effectively when deciding the educational direction of the School District. Parents feel ignored, with many parents of lower grade level students indicating they feel alienated due to the large amount of focus placed on the high school and senior students." Key to addressing these concerns was "implementing an effective communications process to provide for clear, consistent and timely communications to be delivered to all parties throughout the School District."
"There is an expectation that we tackle huge and varying issues such as drug usage, succession planning, taxation, and low graduation rates," Ashton said. "Clearly we need to work with the community, include as many stakeholders as possible and come up with new creative solutions on these and other key issues. There have been a number of personnel issues involving senior staff in recent years that have been dealt with by the board. Some of these personnel issues are still being considered through the grievance procedure. Currently we have a co-leadership of superintendents who are local and have volunteered to step up to the roles and responsibilities on short notice. They have been educators in the community for a very long time and are currently tackling and working on the most significant issues facing Thompson's education system."
Many of those consulted in the review process admitted that recent instability added to the challenges the district faces in recruitment and retention of staff, already made more difficult by the district's demographics, geography and financial constraints.
"The most negative quality of the culture appears to be the underlying sense of district that exists between the Board of Trustees and stakeholders, and the School District Office and Stakeholders," reads the report, which also identified dissatisfaction with the leadership style of the since-resigned superintendent Beverly Hammond. "Based on stakeholder feedback, the current leadership style can be described as one of "command and control" where decisions are perceived to be made without consultation or collaboration, and where directives are issued. "
Senior and school administrators indicated "minimal communication with the Superintendent, and that communication generally occurs only on an as-needed basis. Administration meetings are held inconsistently, if at all, and as such, there is no avenue for dialogue and information-sharing."
Some district trustees shared similar concerns, but "the majority of Trustees strongly believe that the School District of Mystery Lake currently has one of the most qualified and experienced Superintendents in its recent history in terms of knowledge, skills and experience."
This split is not surprising, considering MNP found the board of trustees itself was divided.
"In particular, issues were raised concerning individual Trustee conduct during meetings, including making disparaging remarks and exhibiting conduct that undermines other Trustees and the board as whole. Similarly, there is a belief that some Trustees are catering to special interest groups and special agendas."
Ashton said that such disagreements and differences are the norm rather than the exception when it comes to organizations with multiple elected members.
"Other school boards, municipal councils, federal, provincial and even cabinets all have issues where there is both private and public disagreement," he wrote. "I believe that the board that was elected is dedicated and strong enough to deal with the challenges we have faced and are facing to move forward. We are determined to turn the page of the difficulties we have faced in recent years, fulfill the recommendations and focus on what ultimately matters: the educational outcomes of our students. Anything else would be a distraction."
A majority of the board also had issues with the school district administration when it came to receiving information in a more timely manner, with more than half of the trustees saying that the current process, in which trustees receive formal information on the Friday prior to their Tuesday meetings, did not enable them to review material and be well prepared for meetings. "It is unclear based on the information provided whether or not information for in-camera meetings is provided in a timely manner, " the report noted.
"The report provides a useful road map for Mystery Lake in moving forward," Rampersad wrote to the Citizen. "All the recommendations address and identify specific areas where improvements in governance and organization need to occur. The department has committed to provide support to the school district as it goes forward with implementing each of the recommendations."
To ensure that the recommendations are not shelved and never acted upon, an independent third party will be hired at the conclusion of the 2012-13 school year to review the school district's progress in implementing the recommendations made by MNP, Rampersad said.
"These recommendation will set out a path that strengthen the public education system in Thompson and ensure quality education for parents and students," wrote Rampersad.