Opinion

Cut Admin to Save School Costs? How Original, Premier

It's an argument I first heard as a trustee 35 years ago. And it's wrong.

By Crawford Kilian 1 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

With the release of the Vancouver School Board's preliminary budget proposals for 2016-17, we are into yet another spiral of cutbacks and recriminations.

The VSB proposal, an 88-page document, sets out yet another bleak prospect: a shortfall of over $27 million. That means program cuts, layoffs, and school closures. The board will hold a series of meetings this month to hear from stakeholders about which programs, which people, and which schools face the axe. As T.S. Eliot said, "April is the cruellest month," and it will also be among the bitterest.

Premier Christy Clark is an old hand in these disputes: As minister of education in the early Gordon Campbell government, she helped trigger the last 15 years of school wars by tearing up teachers' contracts (a step now en route to the Supreme Court of Canada). As premier since 2010, she has kept up the pressure on teachers and boards, ensuring a consistent animosity between education and government.

In fairness, Clark has grown up with B.C.'s school wars. Perhaps her schoolteacher father, Jim Clark, had serious issues with the BC Teachers' Federation. But when Christy was born in 1965, the BCTF was already set on a collision course with the Social Credit government of W.A.C. Bennett.

Her elementary education was under the NDP's Dave Barrett, but then Bill Bennett took over about the time she was in Grade 5. She graduated from Burnaby South Secondary around 1983, just as Bennett's restraint program kicked in. Her career at Simon Fraser University (she never graduated) would have had the Solidarity protests as a backdrop.

School wars as a fact of life

Whatever she thought about B.C.'s school wars then, they were a fact of Christy Clark's life, and when she joined the Socreds (now rebranded as Liberals), she was very much on the government side in its endless quarrels with teachers.

So much so that she has now dragged out some old Socred arguments that I first heard as a North Vancouver school trustee 35 years ago -- that the school boards' problem was the money they squandered on their administration staff and out-of-classroom services.

In a March 31 interview on CBC's Radio West, Clark said:

"You can't look at school funding outside of enrolment. We fund school districts mostly based on how many students they have and the needs of those students. We're saying to schools, do what health care has done, do what hospitals have done: stop having all of your back office, your human resources, your accounting, let's not have 60 versions of that across the province.

"Let's take those administrative functions, do them cooperatively, better, integrate them. Health regions have done it, government has done it, it's time for schools to start finding those administrative savings as well. It's all taxpayers' money. I think if we can save money on administration, I think people would want us to do that."

This may have come as a moment of blinding insight to younger British Columbians, but I heard it 35 long years ago, when Clark's education at Burnaby South was supposedly being crippled by administrative bloat.

The Bill Bennett Socreds at least had a recession to excuse their cuts to education and other public services. People were losing their jobs, resource revenues were tanking, and ideology decreed still more job losses as "belt-tightening."

And when parents and other protested the harm being done to their kids, the Socreds looked for a scapegoat. Since most parents loved their own kids' teachers, rank-and-file teachers couldn't be blamed. It must be those wild-eyed radicals the rank and file kept democratically electing to the BCTF executive.

When that didn't fly (then-BCTF president Larry Kuehn was a soft-spoken, unthreatening guy), the Socreds turned to school administrators. They must be the fatcats, the layabouts making big money for little work.

As a trustee, I'd got to know North Vancouver's administrators pretty well. And while as a Capilano College instructor I was no fan of my own administrators, I learned a lot from North Vancouver's. They were exceedingly smart, sensitive men (it was a man's world in those days). They knew their community and understood public-school politics. I learned a lot from them, including the useful fact that they sometimes took trustee assent too much for granted.

They could also crunch numbers, and I learned that a good administrator could actually earn his or her salary in savings. God knows we needed those savings; having once had taxing power over residential and commercial property, school boards by 1982 could tax residential only. Soon even that was gone, and the province controlled all public-school revenues (while also allocating some taxes to the private schools).

Even a small school system is complicated

Once kicked out of office by a Socred sympathizer in 1982, like any other discredited politician I headed for the media and got a gig as education columnist for the Province newspaper. That led in turn to a decade of meeting teachers, staff, and administrators all over B.C. They taught me that even the school system of a small province like ours is too complex for one person to grasp.

I've been blessed with long life -- longer than my friend Andy Newman, principal of North Van's Ridgeway School, who died of a heart attack on the floor of his office. And longer than many other forgotten teachers and administrators who spent much of their lives working for the cause of our children's education.

Christy Clark was at the tail end of the boomer demographic; B.C.'s baby bust began about 1966, and led to the falling enrolments I dealt with as a trustee 35 years ago. Back then we were told to "do more with less," as if an unsupported teacher could walk into a classroom and do everything off the top of her head.

But even a one-man stage play like Krapp's Last Tape requires a lot of planning and preparation, not to mention a backstage crew to handle the lighting and sound, and someone to sweep the lobby and someone to place an ad and someone to pay the actor and everyone else.

Sure, we understood 35 years ago that you could consolidate admin costs, up to a point, and we did. For that matter, Victoria once ran almost all the administration for all of B.C.'s hundreds of little school districts, whose trustees were ill-educated farmers and ranchers.

But as education levels rose, local control became more important, while well-educated trustees were just as interested in controlling costs as Victoria was. And they knew if they annoyed their voters, they'd be out very soon.

So Premier Clark thinks school boards can solve their problems by cutting administrative costs? The VSB 2015-16 budget calls for administrative expenses of 3.1 per cent, while instruction takes 82.7 per cent and building operations and maintenance take 13.1 per cent. Those proportions look very much like those I dealt with as a trustee when Clark was still in high school. And if you cut the VSB's admin budget to zero, you'd save $15.58 million -- and still be about $12 million short of a balanced budget.

It won't be any different in other B.C. school districts. Surrey is now B.C.'s biggest school district, cursed by burgeoning growth and reduced funding. Some B.C. school districts have small-town populations and areas larger than European countries. Refugees are pouring into districts stripped of their programs in English as a second language.

Cut administrative costs? Does Premier Clark run B.C. on 3.1 per cent of its budget?  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics,

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