Wednesday, June 09, 2010

If health authority boards ran the schools

If you like the way your regional health authority board is working, the government's review of the Vancouver school district will please you.
No matter where you live, the report matters. It's setting the stage for an overhaul of school boards that could make them much more like the health authorities. That is, unelected, less accountable to the public and focused on carrying out the government's direction.
Vancouver's trustees - like most boards across the province - have complained that provincial funding has been inadequate to cover necessary costs.
The government asked comptroller general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland - the government's top accountant, in effect - to review the district's operations after trustees said they needed $16 million more to cover education costs.
Her report is good reading. There are some legitimate criticisms of the Vancouver trustees, especially around a lack of long-term planning and the power of interest groups within the school district - mainly unions.
And some good suggestions, for school boards and government.
But the report is based on a faulty premise. It criticizes the board for being too focused on "advocacy" in pushing for programs and funding to improve education in Vancouver.
Trustees, Wenezenki-Yolland concludes, should instead be looking for ways to live within the available funding. There are chances to increase revenue and cut costs.
They should be much more like a corporate board of directors, she suggests, setting broad policy directions and letting management take charge. And much more focused on staying within budget.
Every board should be making the most effective use of available money.
But the report seems to forget that school trustees are elected. The voters decide who they think should serve. And they selected the Vancouver trustees, presumably, because they wanted people who would advocate for public education.
The report would appear to suggest those voters just got it wrong. That's possible, of course. Turnout is dismal for school board elections - generally less than one-third of registered voters. Motivated special interests can play a large role.
Still, that's democracy.
The report concludes trustees could balance the budget. They need, Wenezenki-Yolland says, to cut back to basics.
Junior kindergarten might be nice and improve the long-term outcomes for children, but the province doesn't fund it and it could be cut to save money, the report noted.
The district has been charging below-market rents for child care centres in school properties to create more spaces. The rents could be raised to bring in more money.
And the district could close schools to save money.
The trustees might be meeting community needs, but they are not critical to education, Wenezenki-Yolland says.
The problem is that the trustees were elected to meet community needs - to keep junior kindergarten, support day care and protect schools. They weren't appointed to follow the path the Education Ministry sets.
That's the basic issue. Should school boards be elected and accountable to voters, which means they will be advocates and push for more funding?
Or should they be appointed with an eye to what Wenezenki-Yolland calls a "competency matrix" to provide broad direction consistent with the government's policies.
It's an interesting debate in the abstract. Find nine diverse, knowledgeable, committed people and ask them to provide direction to a school district.
But the debate isn't in the abstract. That's the model the government has chosen for the five regional health authorities.
You would be hard-pressed to find many people in any corner of the province who thinks that has worked well. The boards are unaccountable; decisions are made behind closed doors; there are no champions for the needs of the community. It might suit the government's purposes; but for the public it has been a failure.
Elected school boards might be messy. But they beat the alternative.
And it's wise to be wary anytime government wants to take the right to elect your representatives away.
Footnote: The report suggested moving to a common accounting model to allow useful comparisons between school districts, a good step. It also suggested money could be saved by negotiating concessions with the Vancouver district's unions. The report didn't say why the unions would agree to hurt the interests of their members or what the district could offer in return for concessions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is about removing local controls of our school boards i think maybe its time local control over schools goes fully back to individual districts the taxpayers can make choices and decide budget locally and administer taxes indepentant of Victoria as part of the issue is all money is sent to general revenues and politics play far to big a role i have no respect for report on the VSB until i see one done on Olympic spending , BC place roof spending and on the full details of BC Rail as well as local health authority salaries and administrative costs in comparison to pre contract out era and efficiencies .
I have read of 6 deaths in nanaimos hospital due to lack of sterile facility this never happened when union cleaners worked there and i do not belong to any union its just an observation as it seems for profit contracts have served us poorly in every facet so far and i trust will do no better in schools