Apr 15, 2010

Message to school boards: Shut the hell up


The punch may have landed on the Vancouver School Board but make no mistake; BC Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid just took a swing at every school board in the province.

The Minister’s imposition of the province’s Comptroller General as a budget cop for the Vancouver school board sends a clear message to other school districts.  The message is stop complaining about the money we give you or you might get the same treatment.

School boards get all of their funding from the province and the provincial government argues it has consistently raised per student funding.  This is true.  But school boards respond the increases have not been enough to cover wage increases, increased benefits, general inflation, full-day kindergarten and mandates like paying to become carbon neutral.  The net result, school boards say, is an actual cut in money available for kids in classrooms.

The Vancouver School Board has been the most vocal in its complaints and this has become a political embarrassment for the government.  But virtually every other school board in the province has been saying the same thing. 

Richmond is talking about a $6 million deficit and the possibility of cutting 100 positions.  Kamloops Thompson is looking at a shortfall of $2.4 million.  The Greater Victoria District and Okanagan Skaha see a shortfall of about $1.5 million.  Prince George trustees have been wrestling with how to deal with a $5 million shortfall. 

Surrey School Board chair Laurae McNally told Surrey Now that “The ministry has given us the $5 million for the teachers’ raise, but they’re not funding increased teachers’ pension plan contributions or increased MSP premiums.”

Those two costs alone add up to $4.1 million for the 2010-11 fiscal year and there are others the budget allocation won’t cover. All in all, the district budget is about $12 million shy of what’s needed McNally said.

Obviously, the biggest issue here is, does the provincial government provide school districts with enough money to do the job?

However, there are at least two other important issues in play here.  First, what is the relationship between school boards and the provincial government?  Like municipal councilors, school trustees are elected in their communities to do a job.  But municipal governments get treated very differently.  The Community Charter, passed in the government’s first term, recognizes municipalities as a separate order of government.  It commits the provincial government to consultation before funding is cut. 

Those commitments are pretty limited but they are way more than school boards get.  School boards routinely see their mandates changed without any input.  So the question is, just what does the province have in mind for school boards?  Are we looking at measures that will further undermine their powers?

The second issue is the role being played by the province’s Comptroller General.  The Comptroller General is responsible for the overall quality and integrity of the provincial government’s financial management and control systems.  Increasingly, though, CG Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland is being used as a provincial enforcer.  Her last assignment was TransLink and BC Ferries.  The province will use her report there as an excuse to impose its vision for transportation on TransLink.  Now she is acting as the Premier’s Luca Brasi in the Vancouver school board. 

I am uneasy about the Comptroller being asked to play this role.

In the short term the message to school boards is clear.  You might need to close schools and cut programs but make sure the provincial government doesn’t take the blame.

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