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.