Who'd Be a School Trustee in 2014?

And what exactly do they do today? A look at the whittling down of a once noble role.

By Crawford Kilian 4 Oct 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Being a school trustee was a big deal in the 1970s and early '80s in British Columbia. As a small but critical part of your community's life, you could make a real difference. You were paid a nominal amount (a few hundred dollars a month in a time of soaring inflation), but the real reward was an intense education in the education system itself.

When I won election to the North Vancouver board in 1980, I thought I understood that system. After all, as a teacher at Capilano College I saw its products, fresh out of Grade 12. Maybe I could push for some improvements in students' writing skills. And I hoped to encourage the replacement of Deep Cove's old elementary school, Burrard View, with the proposed new Cove Cliff School -- bitterly resisted by local Socred supporters.

Win some, lose some. Student writing skills today aren't much better than they were then (or when I was a student at Jurassic High in the 1950s, for that matter). But the school did get built, soon had portables to handle the overflow, and this September had its teachers out on the picket line with everyone else.

In countless smaller ways, school boards in those days were a proudly contentious level of government. Unlike, say, college and university boards of governors, trustees were elected; we had to get into the schools we were responsible for, talk to principals and teachers, and advocate for them to our boards and administrators.

Sometimes it was a hard job. I still recall the sick feeling of visiting Ross Road School in Lynn Valley after an arson fire and seeing a blackened, ruined classroom -- an assault on everything we were trying to do for our kids.

Twilight of the school boards

Timing is everything. I didn't know it, but I was in the sunset of the school boards. Until a couple of decades before, Victoria had assigned superintendents to school districts, who pretty well laid down the law to the local trustees in a system of hundreds of districts.

As those districts were consolidated, and trustees themselves became more educated and self-confident, they gained the power to hire their own superintendents. They also had the power to tax local industrial and residential property to pay for a big share of school costs. They used this power responsibly, knowing that they'd lose their jobs if they pushed their taxpayers too hard. But trustees gave their communities power over their children's education.

They also had the power to bargain with their local teachers and support staff, so one district might have the resources (or foolishness) to give those teachers and staff a good deal, while others didn't. And of course some districts could tax a big local industry while sparing homeowners, while others without such a cash cow had to squeeze homeowners and small businesses.

By the 1950s and '60s, the B.C. Teachers' Federation had become stronger and better educated as well. Their early skirmishes with W.A.C. Bennett's Socred government helped to radicalize them, and by the end of the 1970s districts all over the province were caught in a predictable bind: the most prosperous districts would give their BCTF local pretty good contracts (which would be instantly leaked to BCTF headquarters), and within a day or two all the other districts would have to match it.

Guaranteeing your brother-in-law's loan

Worse yet, from Victoria's point of view, the province's share of local school funding would also have to increase. The Socreds understandably thought this was like guaranteeing a loan for their useless brother-in-law.

By the time I was a trustee, many boards had hired professional negotiators to deal with their teachers. North Vancouver still gave the job to trustees, and I was on the team that hammered out a local deal. We were proud we'd hit right on the provincial average: a 15 per cent increase.

Don't laugh. The early '80s were the last spasm of runaway inflation before the U.S. Federal Reserve triggered a North American recession by boosting mortgage rates to heights not seen since. Those were the days when young families like mine were paying 21 per cent on our mortgages. When the Socreds under Bill Bennett brought in "restraint" in 1983, their 12 per cent limit on public spending triggered the start of a general strike.

But by then Bill Bennett had stripped school boards of their power to tax local industry, folding that income into the provincial share of revenues. Henceforth, if boards thought they needed more money for special needs or gifted programs, they would have to extract it from homeowners -- who were often low-income people living on high-value property, thanks to the early-'80s real estate bubble. Soon even that was gone, and all funding came from Victoria.

The recession cost me my trustee's job; like any other discredited politician, I turned to the media and began an 11-year stint as a weekly education columnist at the Province newspaper. From that vantage point my education about education went into high gear.

By the mid-1980s, the trustees' job had dramatically changed, and not for the better. As the Socreds staggered to their demise (and resurrected as today's Liberals), they and their successor NDP governments systematically weakened school boards' power.

Doing Victoria's dirty work

Now all power and money flowed from Victoria. Both the Socreds and New Democrats fired school boards that failed to propose acceptable budgets based on what they'd been allotted. While North Vancouver's fired board won re-election, the lesson wasn't lost on other trustees: Make a fuss, and you're history. Do Victoria's dirty work, or seek some other job.

That has been the situation ever since. As I approached retirement, I asked a North Van trustee who had been fired and re-elected if I should seek the job again. She briskly and dispassionately disabused me. It's a mug's game, she told me. All you can do, when they tell you how much money you've got, is decide where to spend it.

But that asks every B.C. trustee to make Sophie's choice: which of your children do you sacrifice to save the rest? Do you throw away the slower kids to rescue the brighter ones? Rob the big strapping kids to protect the feebler ones?

It is deeply discouraging to think of your neighbours, whether Christy Clark or your local MLA, elected to public office only to impose such a burden on your children -- in effect, burning out their classroom.

But that is what they do, and I'm sure they do it with a clear conscience, believing that they work in the best interests of all British Columbians.

Those who campaign for a trustee's seat next Nov. 15 have one positive option: to use that seat to speak out on behalf of their students and their communities. If nothing else, they will represent their voters and remind their provincial masters that today's students are the heirs of tomorrow's British Columbia, the final judges of the government that educated them. Trustees from Pauline Weinstein (fired in 1985) to Patti Bacchus (still fighting in 2014) have been willing to put their jobs on the line. More should follow them.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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