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Abolish School Boards — 2014

Times Colonist (Victoria BC) Editorial, May 4, 2014

Editorial: Limit number of school boards

When the Cowichan Valley school board was sacked in 2012, it appeared a rough road lay ahead. The provincial education minister of the day, George Abbott, dismissed the trustees for ignoring regulations and running a deficit.

In place of the board, Abbott appointed a well-respected administrator from Surrey, Mike McKay. But there were fears that a single individual, however capable, could not provide the kind of leadership that a locally elected board can offer.

Yet two years later, the $3.7-million deficit has been eliminated with a minimum of drama or rancour. A difficult situation has been resolved, and the district has moved on.

The Education Ministry is sufficiently impressed that McKay has been asked to assist other boards around the province. Quite a performance.

And it raises an interesting question. Cowichan is by no means the only district with financial difficulties. Two decades of declining pupil enrolments have left numerous boards struggling to cope.

Should the Cowichan model be extended to other districts that find themselves in dire straits? Probably not. Elected officials are answerable to the community in a way that appointed administrators are not.

Nevertheless, a strong case can be made that the status quo isn’t working. School board mandates have narrowed over the years. They no longer negotiate teacher contracts.

They have no meaningful say in setting property taxes. They have only a limited impact on curriculum design.

Yet B.C. retains 60 of these bureaucracies, the same number we had in the late 1990s when there were 100,000 more children. Some are handling ridiculously small enrolments.

Several have fewer than than 1,000 students: One has only 240. That doesn’t leave much room to manoeuvre.

Here in the capital region, four separate boards (Victoria, Saanich, Sooke and Gulf Islands) are administering half the number of kids that Surrey’s school district deals with. There are five more in the centre of Vancouver Island, four of them with marginal enrolments.

And those head offices aren’t cheap. Across the province, school districts paid their senior administrators $24 million in 2012. Those in the capital region took home about $2.3 million.

In even the smallest districts, officials such as superintendents and treasurers earn six figures. The superintendent in that region with 240 pupils makes $200,000.

Also, these dollar amounts include only the compensation of top managers. The total staff bill is certainly much larger.

With budgets so tight and more school closures looming, this kind of feather-bedding cannot be justified.

Then there is the question of economies of scale. While some bulk purchasing agreements exist, the proliferation of districts is an obstacle to greater efficiency. Merge some of the smaller boards, and supplies could be bought more cheaply.

Easier said than done, of course. In remote regions of the province, it may not be feasible to amalgamate boards where long distances are involved.

However, Surrey, the district with the highest enrolment, has 70,000 kids. Taking that as a maximum, and leaving remote districts untouched, there is room for some serious consolidation. It should be possible to reduce the number of boards by at least 25. That would save $10 million or so in six-figure salaries. Add in the rest of the payroll and savings of $20 million might be found.

This has been done before. In 1996, 19 boards were dissolved. And the funding situation was not nearly so precarious then.

Could the school system be run adequately with 35 regional boards? The health-care system manages with five.

The process of transition would be tough sledding, of course. But $20 million would keep a lot of classrooms open. It would help prevent the cancellation of discretionary programs, such as band or field trips, and it would buy time until enrolments begin to recover. Those are worthy objectives.