Disability Representation on School Boards – Update, Progress, and Frustrations.

On the 25th of February 2014 I sent an email to the President of the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA). This is the organisation here in New Zealand that advises and trains trustees, who in turn govern each of our schools. I am one such school trustee – for my sons’ school – and our school (rather naturally) belongs to the NZSTA. I wrote to the NZSTA President with a recommendation about changes to a particular Section of the Education Act that lists the criteria all boards must take into account when selecting new trustees. That Section – S 99 – gives a list of considerations that include ethnic, social economic background, and gender balance, when deciding who to add to a school board. My simple suggestion to the President was that it would be a great addition to the list if school boards were also directed to consider adding trustees who have experiences or perspectives of those within the disability community, since such people are present in each school and are often the most vulnerable members of our school communities. I requested that she suggest boards take this into consideration when selecting trustees, and asked if she could petition the government to make the necessary changes to the legislation.

A week went by with no reply, not even an acknowledgement of my email.

So I wrote again, this time to another person who seemed relevant within the organisation (the General Manager of NZSTA), and forwarded them my original email, requesting if they could please follow up on why I’d received no reply. I asked whether there is someone else in NZSTA I should be trying to contact about the issue. This man assured me the President was the correct person to talk to, and told me he’d copied her in on our communication and that I’d no doubt hear from her. That was in February. It is December. The President has never acknowledged my email, my suggestion, or replied to me in any other manner.

However the man who assured me that the President would reply, did add in his own comment on the issue in his first (and only) message to me: He wanted to inform me that it was “extremely unlikely that there would be any appetite for specifying legislatively how co-option slots must be used.” This not only meant he hadn’t understood my email (which at no point talked about forcing or requiring a board to take on people from the disability community), it also showed a lack of understanding that the legislation already mandates boards to consider ethnicity, gender, etc when co-opting new board members – all I was suggesting was adding one more consideration to an existing legislated list; there was nothing outrageous in what I was proposing, but it was nevertheless an important proposal I was making. I tried to explain this to him in a reply, but he never emailed me back to show he understood – that was the end of our communications too. Leaving me with a building sense of utter frustration.

I was so frustrated at the lack of communication or action from NZSTA, that I recently decided to go directly to the people who make the law, instead of those who lobby and advise the lawmakers in this area. I wrote to the Minister for Disability Issues and the Minister for Education on the 19th of November. Again, I explained my simple (but important) suggestion about making boards take into account disability perspectives when choosing new board members. They immediately acknowledged my email, and assured me the Ministry of Education – who are responsible for this area of legislation – would get back to me with a fuller considered reply in time.

On the 18th of December I received a very polite and respectful reply from the Ministry of Education. They thanked me for my suggestion. They assured me they would take my suggestion into consideration next time they were considering relevant legislation. Furthermore, they advised that they have (completely of their own account – I did not request or suggest this bit) raised my suggestion with the NZSTA, advising them to consider the issue when developing guidance to school boards around cooption and inclusive practices. The Ministry’s reply to me made it very clear they had read and understood my request, and reasserted their commitment to those with special education needs – this was not some stock letter, it was an actual reply.

If a government ministry can respond to me – in such a polite, respectful, and helpful manner no less – within a month of me making a suggestion about what would improve school boards, I don’t see why an organisation which exists solely to advise and guide school boards has taken almost an entire year to get back to me. The NZSTA made me feel ignored and frustrated, the government made me feel acknowledged and listened to.

Where this goes from here, I don’t know, it’s not in my hands other than to raise the issue again when the time is right. I feel that I have done the right thing by persisting, and for raising the issue in the first place. I know many of you have asked me to update the matter over the months since I wrote an initial post on the issue back in February, and now that I have an actual update I decided it was time to write a new post; thank you for your support and interest in the issue, I will update again if things progress further.

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11 Responses to Disability Representation on School Boards – Update, Progress, and Frustrations.

  1. Hilary Stace says:

    Thanks for doing this lobbying. You can see why the board I last belonged to withdrew from NZSTA and set up a local group (which unfortunately didn’t last long). The same people are probably still in the same roles at NZSTA. Thanks for persevering with MoEd – these issues have been around a long time and need some action. Hilary


  2. fnvandok says:

    Another very interesting post. Thank you.
    I sent you a message via the autismandoughtisms Facebook page. I hope you received it?

    • I do read every message I receive via my Facebook page, but don’t respond to anything that appears to be generic or spam – I don’t respond to the frequent cut & paste requests for me to share autism product pages for example. If your message wasn’t in that category and I’ve missed it, I apologise, please do send my your message again and I will respond.

  3. Anonymous says:

    If they are anything like this local organization in Southern California, they are not actually interested in helping special education students; just saving money.


  4. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, Part 2 of that story is where this organization, or “Brotherhood,” is discussed…


  5. Jeannette says:

    Boards of Trustees are elected by the Parent Community of schools. You would know this of course as you are already a Board member. Anyone can stand for election as long as they are either a parent of the school or have been nominated by parents. As it is an elected position It would be difficult to mandate school boards to take on someone with experience in the disabiity sector, however they could coopt someone with that experience if the need arose. I have been a board member for 15 years and am the parent of a young man with a disability. I am a long time member of NZSTA and support the work they do in the Education Sector. The Minister was the right person to go to in this instance – she would be the one to make any changes like those that you are lobbying for, not NZSTA. The work they do is to support the parent represented members (elected or coopted). They can lobby or support changes of course, but the decisions are made at a government level.

    • Hi Jeanette, with respect I don’t think you have understood the relevant piece of legislation, or the history of the situation, or indeed that the NZSTA is meant to function in part as an advisory and lobby group that the government looks to for suggestions of change and to help implement best practice. I will try to clarify some matters for you: The relevant section of the legislation is explicitly about coopted and selected trustees, at no point did I talk about elected trustees, I did provide a link to the specific section in my post so click through to understand what the post is about. Also, none of what you’ve said changes the fact that the NZSTA has been very poor with its responses and communications in this situation – I have dealt with the NZSTA in many situations and I frequently have found them difficult to deal with, receiving conflicting advice from them and often finding them unable to give answers to important questions. That is not to say the NZSTA is not an important or helpful organisation, I’m sure it is full of passionate people with an excellent understanding of a variety of board issues. However, like any organisation, I would hope that it would be interested to hear how it has fallen short and how to improve. I never close myself to personal advancement, and to learning more on how to be a better board member and mother and person in general, I would hope the members of the NZSTA have the same open-mindedness and that those from the organisation who may end up reading my post respond with a desire to help and improve and inform, rather than pure reactionary defensiveness as some people and organisations are want to do.

      • Jeannette says:

        “With respect”, as a school trustee of some experience, I think I understand perfectly where you are coming from. Regarding co-opting trustees there are rules within the legislation (and in the School trustee hand book, issued by NZSTA) around the number of trustees thst a school board can have. This also includes the number of co-opted members a board may have.
        Open mindedness is certainly the key here. Education for boards on dealing with disability would be good too..

        • I have no idea why you think it is relevant to bring up the restrictions on the number of coopted trustees? My post is about the requirements around what must be considered when a board coopts trustees, not about the number of them. Again, I get the impression you have entirely misunderstood or misread my post, because your comments both appear to miss the point. As for putting “with respect” in quote marks, that’s just passive aggressive of you. I wasn’t being sarcastic, I was trying to acknowledge your experience while pointing out your errors in what you’d taken from my post. Don’t assume my manner or intentions when you are clearly new to my blog and unfamiliar with my communications – I am not the passive aggressive type, and I mean what I say. If you want to enter a dialogue with me, please address the actual post topic you are responding to, and leave the passive aggressiveness at the door. Ta.

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