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News

Schoolyard Brawl

How elected trustees are fighting a BC Liberal government power grab.

By Andrew MacLeod 30 Apr 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is a staff writer for Monday Magazine in Victoria and an occasional contributor to The Tyee.

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Minister Bond: Opposed in own riding.

Education Minister Shirley Bond gave school board trustees the equivalent of a playground shove when she rose in the British Columbia legislature at the end of March and introduced Bill 20. School trustees dusted themselves off and pushed the minister back, escalating a fight that continues with no responsible adult in sight to break it up.

Back in March, Bond told the house the bill will "improve student achievement" in public schools by making reforms focused on "quality, choice and accountability."

While Bond's proposal sounds innocuous -- who would oppose improving student achievement? -- the bill was loaded with details that have trustees upset. On April 22, the final day of the annual general meeting of the B.C. School Trustees Association, participants passed a motion directing "that BCSTA strongly oppose the continued erosion of the autonomy of locally elected school boards as outlined in Bill 20 and demand the minister withdraw the legislation."

The BCSTA president, Penny Tees from Kootenay Lake school district, immediately wrote a letter to Bond, and the minister agreed to a meeting set for today (April 30) with the school board chairs and superintendents. As it happens, that's the same day the bill is supposed to get its third and final reading in the house, the last chance for MLAs to debate the bill before it becomes law.

Among other things, the bill will create four "superintendents of achievement," who will make recommendations to school boards and who will be available to hear appeals of rulings made by boards, such as decisions to suspend students.

The most vocal opposition to Bill 20 has come from the Prince George school board, in Minister Bond's own constituency. And Prince George trustee Bill Christie -- who puts himself at the centre-right on the political spectrum -- was central to the BCSTA's rally against the bill, though he stresses there was overwhelming support from trustees. Christie has served as a trustee for 13 years in Prince George, and was a trustee in Nelson for 11 years before that. On April 25 Premier Gordon Campbell and Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo presented him with a community achievement award.

'Erosion of local autonomy'

"Bureaucrats should not have the authority to overturn a board's decision," he told The Tyee in a phone interview. The four new superintendents would be bureaucrats, he says, and as such would take direction from the education minister.

"In the opinion of school trustees, the provincial government would never think of introducing legislation like this with respect to city councils," he says. It's tough to imagine the government setting up a bureaucrat who has the responsibility to strike down decisions made by mayors and councillors, he says. School boards, like city councils, are elected every three years and are responsible to local voters.

Christie says much of Bill 20 is positive, but there are more areas he's concerned about. School planning councils -- made up of non-elected parent volunteers, administrators and teachers -- will have the power to set up new "demonstration schools" and charge fees. Again, he says, they are the kinds of decisions that should be made by elected people. "Our real concern is the erosion of local autonomy of school boards."

After Bond's appearance at the BCSTA meeting, he says, it seemed unlikely there'll be a reversal. "After listening to the minister I don't think there will be, but I wish the minister and government listened to the school boards around this province." Before making changes like this, he says, the province should consult with trustees and do it early enough so that it can act on recommendations. In this case, he says, consultation is happening late in the process and it seems like "lip service."

Bond was unavailable for an interview. (As of 4:45 p.m. on Friday she was on a school district tour in Gold River and out of cell phone range.)

Poll: Trustees trusted more than MLAs

Charley Beresford, the executive director of the Centre for Civic Governance at the Columbia Institute in Vancouver, says Bond should be careful who she picks on. "The province would be wiser to be respecting the elected role school boards have," says Beresford, who is also a trustee in the Victoria school district.

On April 20 the institute released the results of a poll that showed people trust their school boards way more than their MLAs. "This recent bill is clawing back even more of the boards' autonomy. It's ironic in the face of the poll."

Conducted by the firm Strategic Communications in March, and considered accurate by plus or minus four per cent 19 times out of 20, the poll found less than 16 per cent said the provincial government was doing the best job on public education in their community. More than 56 per cent said trustees do the best job. (Another 28 per cent didn't know or refused to answer.)

What's more, when asked to identify the "main problem" facing the school system, most people identified a lack of funding, crowded classrooms and a lack of accessibility to higher education. Just five per cent thought "quality" or "standards" were the problem.

"Here is the province going ahead and reducing the school boards' autonomy and not addressing the main problem," says Beresford. "It's a pretty clear message. Funding is important and it's the local trustees the public trusts more."

'No control' over money

Bond's bill can be seen as part of an ongoing attack on school boards, which already struggle to provide the education the public expects with whatever amount of money the province budgets. School boards used to have the power to directly tax local residents, but a Social Credit government stripped them of that back in the 1970s. Says Beresford, "Certainly there's no end of frustration in being a body that has no control over revenues or expenses."

At the BCSTA meeting trustees also passed motions opposing Premier Gordon Campbell's directive that all public projects worth over $20 million need to be evaluated to see if they can be done as public-private partnerships and asking to be exempted from the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement with Alberta.

As with the opposition to Bill 20, says Beresford, the two motions stem from trustees wanting to protect whatever autonomy they have left. That autonomy seems threatened on several fronts under Bond, who has said in the past she wants to change how school boards function. "I think school boards do have some questions around what the future of school boards might be," says Beresford. But it doesn't make much sense to meddle. "Publicly elected school trustees have served public education very well in Canada. It's a model that works."

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