Elected education boards wary of axe

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      As Vancouver prepares to lay off teachers due to funding problems, Vancouver board of education chair Patti Bacchus has another pressing concern in mind: are elected education boards next on the chopping block?

      Bacchus claims that she has heard persistent talk within provincial-government circles about eliminating some or all of the 60 school boards across B.C. Although she notes that no one has come forward to confirm that such discussions are taking place, the Vision school trustee believes that’s no reason to be less concerned about this prospect.

      When Premier Gordon Campbell addressed delegates at last year’s convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, he raised some matters related to K-12 education. He brought up the issue of whether there’s need for a “new funding formula” for schools or whether boards should get back their taxing authority. He also wondered if there’s a need to “realign some of the responsibilities for providing services”.

      In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Bacchus said that her primary concern is that the provincial government is failing to fully fund the cost of education, and school boards are being left with no choice but to gut programs for children.

      Bacchus also said: “Whether it’s done by school boards or done by some other level of government, the level of damage is going to be the same. But I think if you take school boards out of the equation, it becomes pretty much open season.”

      The premier’s office referred a request for comment to the Ministry of Education. Vancouver-Fairview MLA and Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid did not grant an interview.

      Bacchus doubts the government can make a case for saving money by doing away with education boards.

      “But now because things are becoming increasingly dire in terms of the funding gap between what our costs are and what they provide us, school districts are all speaking out, and there’s a lot of public support for what they’re doing,” she said. “I think”¦if I were sitting in the premier’s seat, I’d be thinking, ”˜Well, they’re just causing us trouble now. They’re talking back and telling it like it is and advocating for schools instead of just taking the money that they’re given and making it work.’ ”

      The current Vancouver school board is certainly one that doesn’t keep quiet.

      In November last year, the board, together with employee unions and parents, sent a letter to MacDiarmid demanding the restoration of funds needed by the Vancouver district. They pointed out that since fiscal year 2002-03, the Vancouver school system has had to deal with an accumulated budget shortfall of at least $40 million. They also stated that the district may face a $25-million budget gap for 2010-11.

      In Richmond, the local board of education is calling for community suggestions on how it can deal with its own budget pressures. It anticipates a shortfall ranging from $5 million to $9 million for 2010-11. The district is also grappling with a $4-million funding cut this school year for the upkeep of its schools.

      Like Bacchus, public-education advocate Helesia Luke has heard talk of school boards possibly getting the axe.

      Luke is a board member of the nonprofit B.C. Society for Public Education. In a phone interview, she said that elected boards may possibly give way to health-authority types of administration, much like the current five regional health authorities in the province, which cover broad areas. Or the present public-education system may be broken up into charter schools, with private groups dealing directly with the province. According to her, neither would serve the public good.

      A health-authority model, Luke told the Straight, will mean a “loss of local decision-making and flexibility to make decisions that are right for a particular school community and neighbourhood”.

      With charter schools, according to Luke, “you get singularly focused schools, and it”¦moves away from programs being accessible for everyone. They become destination schools.”

      Burnaby school board chair Diana Mumford laughed when asked by the Straight if she was aware of talk regarding the future of school boards.

      “That has come up before,” Mumford said by phone. “It was called ”˜repurposing’. It keeps coming back, and it’s an upsetting piece because I think that the value of school boards is very much evident in the work that we do in our communities.”

      She added that there seems to be a misunderstanding that the cost of maintaining school boards is so high that there are going to be great savings in getting rid of them. In her case, Mumford said that she receives a salary of about $22,000 a year. She said she is sure that with all the time she puts in, she’s actually working for pennies.