December 1, 2015
Online Journal - Is it time to change the governance structure of SDA education?
Lloyd Robinson, Superintendent of Education, British Columbia Conference, Abbotsford, BC

British Columbia is a province with two pieces of legislation governing all schools. The School Act is very comprehensive and similar to school and education acts across Canada. The School Act applies to public schools, while the Independent School Act is bare bones so that independent school authorities have the ability to be truly independent according to their particular religious, philosophical or pedagogical leanings. The independent school authority is expected to develop unique comprehensive policies and procedures while remaining consistent with educational best practice as defined in both acts. This is the only jurisdiction in North America where the rights of independent schools are protected in this way. 
 
There are 262 independent school authorities in BC. Each authority is constituted under the Societies Act. As such, they tend to run one or two schools under their immediate, local control. The authorities tend to group together into one of five large associations; the Independent Schools Association of BC (ISABC), the Society of Christian Schools in BC (SCSBC), the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCIBC), the Catholic Independent Schools of BC (CISBC), and the Associate Member Group (AMG).1 The associations offer their member schools various administrative and professional services in exchange for a fee that is usually based on a percentage of the government grant received by each authority. 
 
The five associations elect members to serve on the Federation of Independent Schools Association (FISA) board. All member schools of the associations are also charged a per student fee of approximately $4.75 per student per year. Independent school students account for about 14% of all K-12 students in British Columbia. This gives the FISA board a political voice for independent schools. Consequently it is becoming more involved in all provincial education committees and is regularly consulted regarding new legislation and educational initiatives.
 
The Seventh-day Adventist schools, one of the founding member groups of FISA, belong to the AMG which is a mix of various schools or school systems that either don’t fit into one of the larger associations or have chosen to stay completely independent. Membership in the AMG includes Waldorf, Montessori, Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, and others.

Two schools systems in BC are not run under the Societies Act – The Catholic schools and the Seventh-day Adventist schools. Both of these school systems have been constituted under a provincial act of parliament. This makes the Catholics and the SDA’s the only two religious groups that operate as authorities for individuals schools spread out across the province.
 
The Catholics run 79 schools under the leadership of 5 separate dioceses.2 Each of these dioceses operates similarly to a district school board. Most of their schools are relatively large and staffed similarly to Catholic school systems across Canada. The SDAs run 14 schools out of the BC Conference office in Abbotsford. Our largest schools are under 300 students while we have 6 schools with 3 or fewer teachers.

The Catholic school system is large enough to run as a school authority for its schools, ensuring that all the policies and procedures are in place, and practiced, in accordance with the ministry requirements. The SDA school system has challenges doing this.
 
The SDACC Education Code clearly states that the K-12 board is the legal entity for schools within the conference. The K-12 board derives authority from the conference board of directors.3 The Ministry of Education for BC acknowledges the Conference as the authority for the SDA schools.

The challenge however in BC, and I suspect it is similar in other conferences, is that the school system is overly dependent on the whims of the local Adventist church congregation. Or more specifically, the local church leadership. If a congregation decides that a church renovation is more important financially than supporting the local school, the local school suffers. If the local school teacher is not embraced by the local church political leadership, his/her professional career can be badly damaged. If the child of a church leader has difficulty in school, the school is often portrayed as substandard. These types of local church leadership behaviour can seriously damage the ability of the conference to find quality administrators or teachers willing to take a position in the school community. Conversely, it is possible for a teacher or administrator to court existing anti-establishment sentiments to embed themselves in a community as a champion against the authority of the conference. When any of these things occur, it becomes very difficult for the authority to effectively manage and advocate for education employees and for best educational practice in the school. Consequently the long term viability of the school program comes into question.
 
Is it time for our schools to be officially run by local school boards as the legal authority? The SCSBC has a model that works very well. Local schools desiring membership in the SCSBC must be inspected and meet certain standards to be accepted into the association. Once accepted, a percentage of government grant is paid to the association in exchange for professional development, support, handbooks and resources. It is very similar to a business franchise model. If the school cannot meet minimum professional standards, they are dropped from the association. Is this something that could work for the Adventist school system?
 
In a similar model, the Adventist schools would be legally controlled by local school boards. Self-supporting is another term. The local church, groups of churches, or other potential groupings under Societies Act would assume authority for the school. The conference would be a professional Adventist resource – for a fee. Obviously there are a number of conference and SDACC constitutional obstacles that would need to be resolved. There would need to be a major rework of how we look at education employees and care would need to be taken to ensure smooth transitions.

My feeling is that the tension is building in our school system. Trying to run a professional educational system from a central office that is accountable to the Ministry of Education while local leaders and decision makers don’t feel the same need for government accountability is difficult. It is doubly so when Adventist political systems sometimes run counter to best educational practice or directive.

As a church, we agonize over our declining school system. We conduct workshops, surveys, and summits. We talk about marketing, fundraising, and pastoral support. The bigger schools tend to survive but the smaller ones are disappearing. Maybe it’s time to have conversations about the denominational structure of Adventist schools in Canada. Is it time to change the governance structure of SDA education?
 
Footnotes:
 
1 http://fisabc.ca/who-are-we/member-associations/catholic-independent-schools-british-columbia
2 http://fisabc.ca/who-are-we/member-associations/catholic-independent-schools-british-columbia
3 SDACC Education Code, 1108:96, p. 24