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Written Seven Years Ago; Relevant Today

The mask issue demonstrates that School Boards seem to be missing in action during this pandemic. I wrote this piece seven years ago in an attempt to create some dialogue about recreating and improving governance and funding of the K-12 system. This issue should be part of a thorough review of education following the aftermath of the pandemic. More later this weekend.

A School Funding Solution

At the recent UBCM meeting the Premier hinted at giving taxing authority back to School Boards. How would this make Langley who has run up an $8.3 million dollar deficit more accountable to the public? How would this ensure that Boards really paid attention to creating more efficiencies rather than overstaffing their administrative ranks? How would this end the unethical double dipping by senior staff? Why implement a change that would certainly exacerbate the inequities that already exist between urban and rural districts? There is another way to return the benefits of taxation authority to the school system while ensuring greater accountability.

Let me first say that we have some very competent and hard-working Superintendents and Trustees in the system, all of whom have the best interests of children at heart. At the same time, we have no consistent accountability across the system nor do we have enough public commitment to the system—witness the recent voter turnout in the North Vancouver Trustee by-election of only 4.75% of registered voters. Moreover, we have had no improvement in achievement in the past seven years. So, how do we improve the system, while giving education access to the taxation base and instilling greater accountability and citizen interest?

I would suggest it is time to explore a whole new system of governance. That system would see the dissolution of the 100-year-old School Board model by turning the responsibility for public education over to the Municipal Council. This could save millions of dollars across the province while ensuring that the democratic process is foundational to the system. In this system, elected Municipal Councilors would be responsible for the budget, physical assets and policy making related to the schools. Hence, the electoral process remains in place and because the council has taxation authority, they can use this tool to provide more funding to the schools should it be justified. Since much more attention is given to Municipal elections, by being a part of the council’s responsibility, education would garner more attention from the public at large.

The model could still see a Chief Educational Officer (Superintendent) reporting to Council likely through the Municipality’s CAO. The Council could appoint an education advisory board as they currently do police boards or library boards. Through a sound appointment process, Council would be able to ensure the advisory board’s make-up has appropriate diversity and qualifications eliminating the single issue representatives.

Financially, this model could save millions of dollars across the province, money that is dearly needed in the classrooms. Some of the savings but not all would arise from the following examples: no more board fees to a defunct BCSTA; no school trustee salaries or election costs; the end of departmental duplication as there would now be only one municipal maintenance department, one HR department, and one payroll department; reduced recreation costs as the Municipality will not have to rent schools for their programs; reduced staffing as such positions as receptionists do not have to be duplicated. Suffice to say the costs savings would be substantial, perhaps staggering!

Building Official Community Plans (OCP) would be facilitated as the significant land bases of the school districts would now be very much in control of the elected councilors who currently have the zoning powers anyway. Recreation programs, which are such an enriching part of every community, could be integrated; creating the opportunity for less duplication and better coordination. Education and lifelong learning could become a true community focus not limited to only K-12.

Accountability could become a reality in the education system. While the Council could raise the mill rate to support education, I am sure they would require clear and community vetted justification from the advisory board. It would be highly unlikely that we would be faced with situations such as Langley’s deficit, Penticton’s outrageous invoicing practices, or the double dipping currently practiced in multiple school districts. More appropriate personnel evaluation systems would be required as they are now in most municipalities.

In the cases, where school districts currently serve multiple municipalities, the municipality could be offered the choice of purchasing the required service from the neighbouring Municipality or going it on their own. For example, North Vancouver City could either go it alone or supply the funding for their share of the services to the District of North Vancouver. In other cases, such as the unhappy amalgamation of Creston with Nelson, the likely choice would be to go it alone so as to better serve the unique needs of the far flung communities. Who knows, perhaps some Municipalities would even consider their own voluntary amalgamation saving even more dollars by reducing the bureaucracy. Why not pilot this proposal on the North Shore where a former School Board Chair, who understands the unique needs of schools is now Mayor of the District, and where they are working hard to involve their citizens in developing a future oriented OCP.

Offered here, is a modest proposal, that if nothing else should cause some much-needed dialogue. We are a province in a severe financial crisis but a province with exceptional potential. We have an education system with similar potential that appears to have its own financial challenges and has not demonstrated significant improvement for seven years. The system proposed here is much along the lines of the Finnish education system which just happens to be ranked as the best of the OECD countries.

Let the dialogue begin.

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