Heading into a school year as unpredictable as this one, you would think school boards and their leadership would want as much stability as they can get.
Yet a significant portion of Ontario’s education directors are leaving, either having retired this summer or will retire this school year. This includes 14 of the province’s 72 education directors in publicly funded school boards, about 20 per cent of all directors.
Departures range from heads of big boards (like Toronto District, Toronto Catholic, Ottawa Catholic, York Catholic) to smaller ones (Simcoe Muskoka Catholic, Wellington Catholic, Limestone District, Bluewater District).
“The number is large relative to a typical year,” said Tony Pontes, a former director with Peel District and current executive director of Council of Ontario Directors of Education.
It’s his job to coordinate meetings and resources for all these directors. This year, with all the new faces and the added challenge of a pandemic, his focus will be on mentoring.
“Certainly change is always a positive,” he said. “Sometimes even in the best run boards, when you get a new leader coming in, they look at things with fresh eyes.”
‘Timing was pretty good’
These departures were announced before the pandemic began, something not lost on departing directors.
“I guess my timing was pretty good,” joked Alana Murray, retiring at the end of September as director of Bluewater District, around Grey Bruce.
Her last few months were spent figuring out how to offer remote learning, a particular challenge in her rural area where not all student have internet access. She’s out of office now, so is frank about the challenge new directors face.
“It’s a period where many directors aren’t feeling that the voice of directors is very loud,” she said. “It’s not a voice that’s sought in any real way for feedback … so I think people are frustrated.”
Murray worries about the large gap and loss of educational knowledge with all these directors leaving, something some boards aren’t ready to give up just yet.
Martha Rogers was supposed to retire as director of Upper Grand District at the end of this year, announced back in 2018. The board runs schools in Guelph, Dufferin and Wellington County.
But for a number of reasons, including COVID, she’s staying put. Rogers said the trustees don’t want a change in leadership right now.
She’s in new territory when it comes to running schools during a pandemic.
“It’s challenging but it’s challenging for all of us whether we have been doing it for 26 days or in my case, going on 26 years,” she said.
“I’m always up for a good challenge.”
‘We can’t do this alone’
The province recently changed the rules for who can become an education director, allowing for non-teachers. The move, buried in a COVID-19 economic recovery bill, caused some controversy and worries about who might take over.
Pontes wishes there had been more consultation before the new rules were passed. He believes there are a few non-teachers who could be good directors but it would take a “really special person” to fill the role.
“I still believe that the most effective model is a teacher who has moved up the ranks and knows everything about how a school or an individual classroom runs.”
That’s what happened with this new slate of directors. They were already in high ranking positions like superintendent or associate director, not lacking any sort of educational experience.
Wes Hahn was a superintendent at District School Board of Niagara before getting his new gig as director of Trillium Lakelands District around Lindsay and the Kawarthas.
He’s new to the area in this brand new job so he knows that puts him in a unique position, trying to gain student, parent and staff confidence, all in the midst of a pandemic. He’s looking to past directors for support.
“We can’t do this alone. It’s not possible for one person to have all the answers,” he said. “You have to be working collaboratively.”
Hahn has been on the job a month so far, largely focused on creating COVID plans. He’s been learning lots, including slowing down his decision making, which he hopes will make for a safer school year.
“Whenever you are in a situation where things are moving quickly, you tend to speed up,” he said. “I know people want information as quick as possible but sometimes if you speed up a little too quick, there’s potential for mistakes.”