Democracy and Education: Elected Officials Advocate, Appointed Ones Capitulate

Article excerpt

The recent controversy over the Vancouver School Board's budget situation has been a bit of an interesting story to follow. Much like every other school board in BC, the VSB has been wrangling with a considerable problem: the costs of providing a high-quality public education continuously increase, while the funding that comes from the provincial government doesn't keep pace.

This isn't a problem that only the elementary, middle, and high schools face; indeed, every pubhc educational institution in this province, from the Vancouver School Board to Simon Fraser University must somehow find a way to balance their budgets in the face of increasing costs and stagnant levels of funding. I'm certainly not an accountant, but the financial problem that all school boards - and our colleges and universities - face is a substantial one.

When costs increase and funding doesn't match, then cuts to education need to be made because the provincial government has legally required all school boards, colleges, and universities to submit balanced budgets. This is a feat that even the provincial government itself couldn't accomplish; instead, they amended their balanced budget law giving themselves a pass.

But the legally required balanced budgets aren't the crux of this issue. The true centre of the controversy was the fact that the Vancouver School Board stood up and spoke out about their financial issues. They publicly called upon the provincial government to fairly fund education. They postponed approving their budget because the legally required balanced budget would have meant substantial cuts to education and school closures. They acted as advocates for education.

It seems that this was something that the province didn't want the VSB to do. The Minister of Education commissioned the comptroller general to investigate the school board's management practices and report back with recommendations on how the budget could be balanced. The submitted report essentially branded the VSB trustees as incompetent; apparently, they spent too much time discussing the impacts of underfunding on the school district, they spent too much time discussing how they could best advocate for education, and they didn't spend nearly enough time just dealing with it and cutting education. Of course, the issue of provincial funding was out-of-bounds for the comptroller general's report.

It's interesting to note what wasn't out-of-bounds, though: the entire principle of elected school boards. The report from the comptroller general noted that elected school trustees, for some entirely incomprehensible reason, felt that their job was to advocate for education. And because education actually needs a lot of advocacy under the BC Liberals, the trustees had been engaging in advocacy. So, the comptroller general suggested that the government should re-consider the 'co-governance' model of education. Reconsider having elected school boards.

Why? Because, in my experience, appointed boards responsible for education don't speak up as readily, and don't embarrass the provincial government in the same way when their funding is being slowly drained to unsustainable levels.

To understand this a bit better, it's useful to compare the K12 school situation to the post-secondary situation. And I will use a very familiar example: Simon Fraser University. I graduated from SFU in June 2010, and I was an elected student member of the university's Board of Governors from 2008 to 2010.

There are a number of similarities between the Vancouver School Board and Simon Fraser University. The two have budgets comparable in size: the VSB's is around $480 million, and SFUs is around $420 miUion. Because both rely on employees to conduct their main activities, teaching, the majority of both budgets are dedicated to staff salaries and benefits. Both are pubhc organisations, with funding from the provincial government being the primary source of funding. …