Jun 6, 2010

Some issues arising from the special advisor’s report on the Vancouver School Board


The special advisor appointed by the provincial government to look at the finances of the Vancouver School Board reported on Friday and a number of issues arise from the report. 

Before discussing these, however, people should be aware that in my day job I am a researcher for the Canadian Union of Public Employees which represents some of the non-teaching staff of the Board.  I do not normally work on issues regarding schools.

I am not going to discuss specific budget issues since I lack the financial information.  What I do want to look at are both process and policy issues that arise from this report.

The School Act gives the Minister of Education the right to appoint “special advisors” in school boards to examine a broad range of issues regarding achievement and educational, financial or community matters.  These appointments do not require consultation with the board under review.  The Minister of Education sets terms of reference and the advisor reports to the Minister.

On April 14th the province appointed B.C.’s Comptroller General, Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland as special advisor in the VSB to examine “the board’s budget development process, benchmarks, financial forecasts and position, management capacity, administrative expenditures, and opportunities for economies of scale, and make recommendations to assist the board to meet its obligations under the School Act. “

By setting the terms of reference for this review the Minister set the agenda.  The Comptroller notes in her report that:

Specifically excluded from our scope of work was the structure of the provincial funding model for education.

In other words, the terms of reference forbid the special advisor to even look at the issue being raised by every school board in British Columbia.  This automatically limited the review to only those issues the province wanted to address.

The Comptroller’s report goes far beyond what the province will permit its own auditor, the Auditor General to look at.  The Auditor General Act stipulates that the AG:

must not call into question the merits of program policies or objectives of the government, a government organization or a trust fund

The AG may examine the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the province’s operations but he must not call into question policy choices made by the government.  Many of the things the Comptroller questions are policy choices made by the VSB to serve their community.  The School Board is mandated to meet the educational needs of children yet the Comptroller complains in her report that “cost containment is not their first priority.”

The Comptroller writes at length on what she considers the VSB’s extensive advocacy activity.  This advocacy activity is focused on the province’s funding model for education, which of course the Comptroller is forbidden to even examine in the context of the Board’s finances.

Finally, in terms of process, when the Auditor General reviews some aspect of provincial government activity he is required by law to provide a copy of his report to the Minister of Finance seven days before e provides the report to the legislature.  In fact, he generally goes much further providing government a chance to respond in writing.  These responses are included in his reports.

In contrast, before being released publicly the Comptroller’s report went only to the Minister of Education and, apparently, the government’s communications shop.  The government issued a press release when the report was made public highlighting all negative comments in the report.  The School Board was not given an advance copy nor was it permitted to add its reaction to the report as the government normally does with Auditor General reports.  The School Board was left to respond on the fly.

The Comptroller’s report says:

The Ministry of Education describes the governance approach [for school boards] as a “co-governance” model between the Ministry of Education and school districts.

From a policy perspective her report demonstrates just how little “co-governance” the province is now prepared to permit school boards to exercise.  The government gave the VSB no say in whether or not a “special advisor” was required, who that advisor would be nor what their mandate would be.  They were not even permitted to see the report before publication.

Despite the fact that virtually every school board in the province is raising issues about the education funding model the VSB was singled out for “review.”  From a policy perspective it must be asked if this is an attempt to deal with provincial issues or an exercise in intimidation.

The review clearly goes far beyond what the province will allow itself to be subjected to in reviews by the Auditor General.  This double standard also raises questions about the so-called co-governance model.

The choice of the Comptroller as the special advisor raises questions as well.  The Comptroller is not independent in the sense that the Auditor General is independent.  She works for the provincial government.  People have spoken highly of her integrity but one of the results of this report is that no one in the future will accept that the Comptroller can be trusted as independent when she is assigned by the province to review politically sensitive issues outside of the provincial government.

In recent years school boards in British Columbia have been allowed less and less room to exercise their mandate in support of children and education.  Both the province’s funding model and changing provincial mandates have limited the ability of boards to make decisions.  One final policy question arising from the Comptroller’s report is whether this is the first step in an agenda to even further strip school boards of their powers in a move to more direct provincial control.  If it is the province may have cause to regret the move.  Once the curtain of school boards is removed the province will be visible to everyone as the man behind the curtain.

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