Chapter Two: The Structure of Canadian Schooling

2.7 Local Participation in Education Governance: The Development of School Boards

As noted earlier, in order to facilitate the day-to-day operation of public schooling and to allow for local community input into the running of their schools, all provinces created some form of locally elected educational body, traditionally called school boards. Within legally prescribed parameters, school boards were responsible for operation of schools within their geographically designated school district or division. In the early twentieth century these local boards were small and truly local – often responsible for only a single school. However, through the process of amalgamation, discussed below, some larger urban school divisions may now be responsible for several hundred schools.

In the last three decades, not only have school divisions/districts become larger and larger, but across Canada, provinces have moved to increasingly centralized educational decision-making. Provincial governments have removed from school boards a number of powers including the ability to raise education taxes locally and local collective bargaining, while at the same time increasingly holding them accountable for local student achievement. These developments have significantly altered the character of local education governance leading to a major restructuring of school boards across the country, and to their abolition in some provinces.

Box 2.7.1

School Boards and District Education Councils in New Brunswick

The past decade has seen a great deal of upheaval in school governance in New Brunswick and dramatic shifts in the relationships between provincial and local decision-making in education.

1992: The number of local school boards reduced from 42 to 18. Funding, collective bargaining, and control of the curriculum all provincial responsibilities.

1996: School boards abolished in New Brunswick and all education employees became employees of the province. New system includes 2 Provincial Boards (one French, one English), 18 District Parent Advisory Councils, and local School Parent Advisory Committees. Participation on these bodies was limited to parents of school-aged children.

1999: Provincial elections. New government committed to returning to locally elected governance structures.

2000: Report of the Select Committee on Education, May 18, 2000, recommends a structure that provides for publicly and locally elected bodies at the district level with a continued role for local school committees.

2001: District Parent Advisory Councils and Provincial Boards of Education were dissolved and replaced by 14 District Education Councils (DECs) (nine Anglophone and five Francophone) each made up of between 11 and 13 elected members elected on a sub-district or ward basis. The mandate of the DECs was limited to policy governance, with the superintendent of each district hired by the DEC to lead and manage daily education operations. At the local school level School Parent Advisory Committees (SPACs) were replaced with Parent School Support Committees with expanded opportunities for participation and added roles.

2012: As of July 1, 2012, the nine previous Anglophone districts were reduced to four: Anglophone School District North, Anglophone School District West, Anglophone School District South, and Anglophone School District East. The five previous Francophone districts were reduced to three: District Scolaire Francophone Nord-Est, District Scolaire Francophone Nord-Ouest, and District Scolaire Francophone Sud. Each of these newly amalgamated districts continued to be governed by new District Education Councils elected in May 2012. School level Parent School Support Committees (PSSCs) continued as before. Within the amalgamated districts, the organizational structure was amended to include senior education officers in charge of Education Centres in each district, often the site of the former district office.

Source. New Brunswick Department of Education Website: <>

The History of Consolidation

Today, the local school board in a rural area is likely to be responsible for the administration of many elementary and secondary schools, spread out over a large geographical area and enrolling thousands of students. Urban school boards may have much larger enrolments. The Toronto District School Board in Ontario, formed in 1998 by the amalgamation of seven existing boards of education, has some 247,000 students attending close to 600 schools, making it the largest school board in Canada and one of the largest in North America (

This pattern of large local school districts is a growing phenomenon in Canada, the product of both the consolidation during the mid-twentieth century of a patchwork of thousands of small, usually single school districts that provided an earlier structure for local educational authority, and a more recent period of provincially mandated amalgamations over the last three decades. In the section that follows, the early process of consolidation in Alberta is briefly outlined. Alberta was one of the first provinces to begin to create larger administrative units in earnest, and this development had considerable influence across Western Canada. While consolidation has since occurred in all provinces, it has not always taken exactly similar forms or at the same time, nor should any particular current consolidated arrangement be considered a “once-and-for-all” administrative arrangement.

Consolidation in Alberta

By the time Alberta entered Confederation in 1905, an educational system based on small local administrative districts, sometimes referred to as “four-by-fours” ‒ four miles long and four miles wide ‒ was well established. Some 600 such districts existed when Alberta was incorporated as a province, and with continued settlement and development in the early twentieth century, this number eventually surged to over 5,000.

While these small administrative units were in many ways well suited to the existing educational needs, economic conditions, available transportation systems, and political preferences, they also gave rise to administrative and educational problems. Their size, while facilitating student access and community input, was often perceived as an obstacle to the improvement of rural schooling. Small districts, it was argued, made it difficult to provide for education beyond the elementary grades; resulted in large discrepancies among districts in terms of their financial strength and the quality of education they provided; made it difficult to create stable working conditions and career options that could improve the professional status of teachers; and led to duplication and a related lack of economies of scale in the buying of school materials. Such concerns gave rise in the early decades of the twentieth century to a number of experiments in which local districts cooperated to create larger consolidated school districts covering up to 207 square kilometres, with students being transported to a central village or town school. This development began in Alberta with the formation of the Consolidated School District of Warner in 1913, and by 1919 there were 63 consolidated school districts in Alberta. However, this approach to consolidation lost its momentum, and after 1922 a number of consolidated districts were disbanded.

The limitations that small school districts posed to the development of secondary schooling resulted in several provinces moving to larger administrative units in two stages ‒ the first involving only secondary schools, and the second bringing elementary schools into the secondary units to form a unified school system. In Alberta, the Consolidated School Act of 1921 made possible the creation of a number of rural high-school districts in which four to eight local districts combined for the purposes of providing secondary education (while maintaining their individual responsibility for elementary schools).

While a number of such districts were created in the 1920s, it was in 1936 that the largest step was taken in consolidating Alberta’s school districts, when by ministerial order all rural districts were absorbed into greatly enlarged administrative units referred to as school divisions. These divisions initially consisted only of rural districts and hamlets, but they were soon joined by most towns and villages, so that by 1939 there were some 44 divisions in operation across the province, and by 1959 there were 55 covering almost all the rural settlement in Alberta. The divisions comprised between 70 and 80 school districts and covered from 3,885 to 5,180 square kilometres in area. Local districts remained in existence, but school divisions, governed by an elected board of trustees and supported by a full-time central office staff and a provincially appointed superintendent, assumed virtually all of their administrative responsibilities, leaving the district board with a very minor advisory role in matters related to religious instruction and the use of French in schools.

The 1950 County Act allowed for the establishment of counties in Alberta. These were to be a unified form of government that, instead of keeping separate municipal and educational responsibilities, combined them in a single administrative unit. Established in many parts of rural Alberta, they provided an alternative structure to the separately administered school divisions and municipal districts.

In the 1990s, Alberta, like virtually all other provinces, initiated a further consolidation and regionalization of its school boards. By a process of both voluntary and mandated amalgamation during 1994, the number of operating school boards in the province was reduced from some 141 to less than 70. Currently there are 62 public, separate and francophone school boards in Alberta (

The Role of School Boards

As has already been noted, local school boards are required to act within the parameters laid down in provincial legislation and regulations, and are held accountable to the provincial government through the minister of education. However, school boards are also, in most cases, subject to local election every few years, which obliges them to reflect the educational aspirations of their local voters.

When school boards were responsible for very small jurisdictions, the most common number of board members, called trustees, was either three or five. Today, school boards generally consist of seven to fifteen trustees, although there are some boards that exceed this size. It is normal in most provinces for trustees to be elected, either by the electorate of the school district as a whole or in individual wards; under the latter system, the district is subdivided into regions or wards, each of which elects one or more trustees to reflect its interests on the board. In recent years, an important modification to this process has been the institution of legal provisions by some provinces and territories to ensure the representation of specific minority populations on their school boards. This has generally involved Francophone and Indigenous populations, and in Nova Scotia, prior to the abolition of school boards, African-Canadian representation. In Ontario, since 1998, school boards that operate secondary schools have been required under the Education Act to appoint at least one pupil representative (or “student trustee”) to provide advice to the elected trustees. These pupil representatives do not vote on board decisions or attend in-camera meetings. Nonetheless, they do represent a new and significant attempt to provide for a student voice in school board deliberations (Lindeman, 2004).

There are few restrictions on who can run for election to a school board. The Manitoba Public Schools Act, for example, states that anyone who is (1) a resident elector of the division, (2) at least 18 years old, and (3) a Canadian citizen can run for election to the school board. Once elected, it is the trustees collectively who constitute the board as a corporate body with a legally defined range of duties. This collective constitution is important because it means that the board exercises its authority only as a single corporate entity and not through the actions of individual members.

As with their counterparts at the provincial level, the elected school board members are generally assisted by a professional administration headed by a chief executive officer, variously referred to as superintendent or director of education. The size of the board office administration is usually related to the size of the district. Many of the same tensions that exist between provincial politicians and professionals can also be found between school boards and their superintendents.

Superintendents may feel that trustees are uninformed about education and have agendas that are short term and much too heavily influenced by re-election considerations. Trustees may feel that their professional staff are insufficiently concerned with what the public thinks, and too unwilling to accept any criticism. As at the provincial level, this tension can be positive or negative, depending on how well the parties are able to work together to take best advantage of their different viewpoints. Trustees have the last word in that the school board hires and can fire the superintendent. While firings of superintendents do occur in Canadian school districts, it is also common for superintendents to serve many years or to leave voluntarily for another position, usually in a larger district.

School boards are mandated both to ensure local compliance with provincial laws and to be responsive to community interests (which may themselves be multiple and contradictory). Their situation can fluctuate quite rapidly from public disinterest reflected in low voter turnout at elections, acclamations, and empty board meetings, to passionate involvement characterized by packed board meetings and electoral defeat for trustees. Such action can come as a consequence of either competing local interests or as conflicts between local and provincial agendas. The following examples describe only some of the controversial issues that school boards are likely to address.

  1. Setting budgets. Deciding issues such as cutting or increasing budgets, hiring and laying off teachers, and reducing services.
  2. Personnel. In some provinces, negotiating collective agreements for professional and support staff. Defining working conditions in areas such as class size, preparation time, maternity/paternity leaves, and pensions. Assigning principals to particular schools.
  3. Facilities. Deciding on school closures and school openings, as well as reorganization; selecting which schools will offer which programs; and determining how transportation will be provided.
  4. Programming. Deciding on the provision of programs other than those mandated by the province (e.g., international baccalaureate programs, family life education, and minority language programs).


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