Does British Columbia need elected school boards?

Hastings School, Penticton and Franklin streets

Hastings School, Vancouver

Last year, property owners in British Columbia paid close to $1.9 billion to support  elementary and secondary schools through property taxes. It works out to thousands of dollars per homeowner over time, but if you’re childless like me, you may never have asked where the money goes. I ignore the school board ballot at local election time because I don’t know the people or the issues.

In December 2015, the Government of Quebec introduced legislation to eliminate elections for local school trustees. Only five per cent of the electorate filled in their school board ballots in the most recent election. The government plans to operate the school system through local administrators, with input from voluntary local advisory committees made up of parents, school employees and community members, up to a maximum of 16 people per committee. Over time, it will look for ways to share services across school districts.

B.C. has been chipping away at school board powers in stages. In April 2015, the legislature approved Bill 11, a law to regulate professional development for school teachers, promote shared services among school districts, and — by the way — reduce the autonomy of the 60 elected school boards. The Minister may now restrict or suspend the work of a school board if:

  1. The board is failing or has failed to meet its obligations under the School Act; or
  2. It is in the public interest to do so.

Even before this bill was adopted, the government had cancelled the powers of at least one school board for failure to pass a balanced budget. The Cowichan Valley school district was operated from 2012 into 2014 through a provincially appointed administrator. Bill 11 faced scattered opposition, but the warnings that it would “remove our right to live and participate in a democratic society” did not gain traction.

The elected trustees have no obvious allies. Parent advisory councils appear to see the trustees as rivals for provincial government attention, and their news release on Bill 11 can be interpreted as calling for a stronger system of consultation with parents.  Senior school district employees, whether school superintendents or financial officers,  have nothing to say on their websites about the role of elected boards. The campaign site of the activist B.C. teachers’ union addresses 23 pressing issues in public education, but empowering elected officials is not on the list.

What do B.C.’s local school boards do? They don’t make decisions on when to build new schools, and they don’t provide capital funding. They don’t negotiate teacher or staff salaries. These are provincial government tasks, with the Province having taken collective negotiating power away from the school boards in 2013. In urban areas, local school taxes flow to the city or town government, which then passes the money to the Province. Property tax revenues account for just one third of the provincial funding that flows back to school districts under a complex formula worthy of a 30+ page manual.

A cynic might suggest that elected school trustees exist only as human shields,  catching flak that might otherwise be aimed at provincial politicians. If this is the Province’s intention, the teachers’ union isn’t buying in. The union directs its rage at the provincial government, sending the message that class sizes are ballooning and special needs kids have been abandoned. Of course, there’s another side to that story, as shown in the table below, drawn from information provided by school districts and posted to the provincial government website.

In brief, the table shows that the number of teaching assistants in B.C. has jumped in the past decade (showing increased support for special needs) and the number of very crowded classrooms has dropped sharply. Average class sizes have risen slightly at junior levels and subsided in high school.

2008-2015 BC class sizes

According to one independent view, the B.C. public system is doing relatively well, whatever its pattern of governance. The Conference Board of Canada, a prestigious think tank, ranks  B.C. schools as the best in the country.

“B.C. earns an “A+” on high-school attainment, doing better than the top-ranked international peer on this indicator, the United States. Given that high-school attainment is a necessary precursor to post-secondary education, it is not surprising that the province is a strong performer on college attainment (“A”) and university attainment (“B”). B.C. also performs well on student skills, scoring an “A+” for its low share of students with inadequate reading, and “A”s for its low shares of students with inadequate math and science skills and for its large share of students with high-level science skills.”

Kitsilano Secondary School, Vancouver

Kitsilano Secondary School, Vancouver

Against this backdrop, the B.C. school trustees association offers this  explanation for its existence.

“Trustees engage their communities in building and maintaining a school system that reflects local priorities, values and expectations. School trustees listen to their communities, guide the work of their school district, and set plans, policies and the annual budget. Reflecting the strength of local representation, boards report back to their communities on how students are doing: boards are directly accountable to the people they serve.”

B.C. school districts prepare extensive reports on the state of local education, presumably in response to government demand, and these are published on the provincial government website. This process could usefully be copied to cover other B.C. institutions including municipalities and health authorities. The reports  describe education outcomes in statistical terms, and they report the perceptions of students, parents and teachers. They do not, however, provide a measure of the value of elected school boards.

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