EDMONTON - The Alberta government has taken the unusual step of disbanding a northern school board, saying a "seismic shift" is needed to save a generation of largely aboriginal students from a morass of poor test scores and high drop-out rates.
All 23 members of the Northland School Division have been replaced by an official trustee, Colin Kelly, who has a background in aboriginal education, Education Minister Dave Hancock announced Thursday.
It's the first time in a decade the provincial government has taken such action. It disbanded a public school board in Calgary in 1999 after labelling it "dysfunctional."
Kelly has worked as director of education for Treaty 8 First Nations in Alberta and served as the superintendent of the problem-plagued Northland division between 1990 and 2002.
Despite years of working with the board to try to improve its educational programs, student performance was still the poorest in the province and no solutions were imminent, Hancock said. That forced the government to invoke a rarely used power under the School Act that allows the province to intervene.
"The question I had to determine is do we continue to work at an incremental level or do we need a seismic shift?," Hancock asked.
"I think we need a seismic shift."
The school division serves more than 2,800 students in largely rural communities. It sprawls over a diverse area north of Edmonton that includes farming communities and those dealing with issues surrounding the oilsands.
Last October, a provincial accountability report found that slightly fewer than 20 per cent of students in the division were completing high school within three years, compared to over 70 per cent in the rest of the province.
Only about 40 per cent of students scored an acceptable level on provincial achievement tests, compared to a provincial average of just under 77 per cent. Thirteen per cent of students between 14 and 18 drop out of school, compared to a provincial average of just less than five per cent.
Some of the deposed trustees said the move was a complete surprise and promised to do what they can to fight it.
Shirley Klassen, a trustee from Anzac, Alta., said she only found out from local media that the school board had been disbanded.
"I don't think that's right because we're trying as hard as we can in our jurisdiction to keep our kids in school," she told Edmonton radio station CHED. "I'm a fighter, so I'll fight them all the way."
There are social problems in the region and it can be a struggle to get children to attend school or convince parents that it's important, Klassen suggested. The provincial government doesn't understand those types of challenges, she said.
"There's no emphasis on education. There's a kid on our reserve that doesn't go to school, which I fight every day to get him in school and keep him in school," she said. "It seems nobody cares around here, except me."
Klassen said she still planned to attend a board meeting scheduled for Friday in Peace River.
Staff turnover is also a big issue.
The school board lost up to two-thirds of its teachers and other staff members over a four-year period, Hancock said. The turnover prompted the province to offer bursaries and other incentives to try to retain educators.
The school division also maintained 142 housing units specifically for staff. But the revolving door just kept spinning.
A deputy minister informed the division in 2008 that it was being watched and had to improve its performance, Hancock said.
A fracas over a new school in the tiny Metis community of Peavine, in northwestern Alberta, may have served as a tipping point.
The $12.5 million school, which was completed last April to replace what Hancock called an aging and "unsafe" older building, remained vacant when students went back to class in the fall. Nobody could decide who owned the land it sat on.
"The Metis settlement doesn't have the title to the land so they can't do the (ownership) transfer. So the school sits unoccupied. Nobody was putting together an occupancy agreement that would allow the kids to go in and use the school until they can sort out these other issues," Hancock said.
He called the situation "totally unacceptable," adding that the dispute is forcing students in the community to ride the bus for two hours every day to go to school in nearby High Prairie.
"It distresses me, actually it angers me, that students are being sent to school outside their community while others continue to attend classes in the old school building, which was being replaced because of health and safety concerns, because the school board and the Metis settlement can't get their act together and agree on the ownership and operation of the school," Hancock said.