Two years into the job, a school trustee reflects and looks ahead
Almost two years ago British Columbia got a whole new batch of school trustees and, since I am one of them, now may be a good time to reflect on this role and evaluate if public education is moving in the right direction or not.
To begin with, the way public education is organized in British Columbia is somewhat convoluted. A model of co-governance between provincial authorities and local trustees creates a situation where each school district’s budget is essentially set for 85% by the province, compensation levels for all staff are negotiated and controlled at the provincial level as is the curriculum. This does not mean that elected trustees have nothing left to govern over – they absolutely do – but it does narrow their mandate to basically overseeing the execution of policies that are set at a higher level of government. As trustee I for instance would like to tweak the curriculum here and there and it would be great to create certain incentives for administrative and teaching staff, but I can’t. Even offering a leased car to a teacher driving from far is out of the question under the current structure.
The entire set-up of public education is such that it seriously limits structural innovation and that is not just because the provincial government is such a dominant player. Each professional group that participates in the existing process, teachers, principals, admin staff, trustees, parents has their own organization with in turn their own employees, and, as I have found out, their own legal advisors. So much for the idea of ensuring that every dollar goes into the classroom as almost the entire system is funded by public means. Think of it as a carefully constructed house of cards and as long as each component plays its part and gets funded properly, things are fine. In fact they are good enough for everyone that there is little incentive to change anything.
So the problem arises when certain events start to test this system and cracks emerge. The disruptive strike actions by the province’s teachers union, the BCTF, and the endless pressures from the provincial government on school districts to make and find administrative savings have put exactly this kind of pressure on public education in BC. Just take a casual look at the #bced hashtag on Twitter on any given day and you will get the idea of the state of affairs: not good. And while there is a lot to talk about, the debate has now almost entirely focused on ‘funding’, which has led to a totally unproductive discussion between the various parties, most notably between trustees and the provincial government. Having sat in on meetings with the minister, MLAs and having seen the financial impact on day-to-day operations it remains a mystery to me how it is impossible with so many adults in the room to reach a workable consensus about funding public education. Not exactly the example to those we purport to educate.
While this relationship is billed as co-governance between government and trustees, it is anything but. My inbox is filled on a weekly basis with letters from other school districts to the minister of education outlining the serious impact the current funding mechanism and budget cuts have had on the ability of local school districts to deliver adequate education and avoid school closures. These letters get a polite ministerial response, but do not lead ever to meaningful action. It is pretty much a one-way street and with a provincial election coming up in 2017, the BC Liberal government has now started to address these concerns by rolling out some ad-hoc funding announcements. While no one suggests we should not be grateful for extra dollars flowing into the system, even some highly motivated BC Liberal supporters have started to roll their eyes over the cynical treatment of education: first as a line item to balance the budget, then as a prop to get some votes. From my perspective this is all the more galling as globalization and rapid innovation have made it clear that the one asset we have to invest in is our future generation. No matter where you stand politically, it is not exactly a pretty picture.
The problem is the funding mechanism itself, the very formula that gives a per pupil amount of dollars to each district which does not cover the costs to adequately operate any school district and as a result education suffers. But I would like to go further than that, as the continued ‘funding’ debate takes away from the structural issues in public education. If anything the recent crisis has underlined that districts are increasingly losing their independence and during my election campaign I pointed to the real danger of a government embarking on district amalgamation in order to save costs. This process has already started with the ‘shared services’ program, a noble idea, but for some districts this increases costs and as I mentioned, it may be the precursor to further attempts to squeeze public education.
And then there is the totally broken model of contract bargaining where teachers, students and parents are held hostage by a completely outdated model of labour (or ‘industrial as we used to call it) relations which has brought pain and grief to all parties involved, yet no one has the political guts to really do something about it. During my first few years as trustee I am still at a loss how to rationally explain to inquiring parents the fact that a union can shut down an entire school system with a government taking its time to resolve the conflict at hand. Anger and frustration all over the place, yet the moment employers and union strike a deal everyone is back to work and conveniently forgets about the high likelihood of having to sit through the entire movie again four years down the road. Again we are falling short of providing a framework and example of how to co-operate and build consensus to those we are educating.
Many have called for a Royal Commission to assess the state of public education in British Columbia and see if a set of recommendations – binding or not – could help move a constructive debate on structural reform. I am in favour of that but also fear that some of the vested interests will be quite reluctant to open the door to sweeping change. And despite all the noise from the province’s political parties, education never features high on the list during a campaign or, come to think of it, once a party is elected and forms government it is back to the usual pattern when it comes to public education. Yet redefining the funding formula, giving more flexibility to local districts and even consider to go back to local district bargaining under a set of drastically rewritten labour laws should all be on the table. Most of this is something that requires trustees to work together and influence the politicians of BC’s political parties which often is as simple as writing a short article like this one.
In the meantime trustees – like myself – can bring tremendous value to their districts and have fun at it too. Working with local staff and teachers to encourage them in their work is incredibly rewarding, at least that is what I have discovered. In my district teaching staff are putting together the fourth consecutive TedXWestVancouver Education and earlier this year organized 'Ignite the North Shore’, both events that brought out an incredible amount of energy, new ideas, enthusiasm and fun from educators. I was also pleased to do a presentation to one elementary school assembly on my mountain climbing experiences and was equally exited to present career thoughts to a high school class on entrepreneurialism and how recent trends affect our students when they map out their futures. Even the most cynical observer of public education would come away inspired after having attended these events and understood the many opportunities on the learning side of things.
It leads me to think that if politicians cannot reform education, the grassroots educators over time will generate the sort of energy that is required to do that, supported hopefully by their local trustees. The BCTF too should change course and focus on whether there are teacher’s jobs fifty years from now and what they will look like rather than keep itself busy with bruising political fights over dollars. They have the knowledge and expertise to be a constructive partner in all of this.
For me, getting involved at the local school district level allows you to realize the enormous energy and high quality of learning we offer in British Columbia and how utterly ridiculous it is to risk all of that by playing political games in a system that is not really designed for that. First and foremost, the system is designed to educate. If we can’t get it to do that properly we must fix the system first.
Note: I was elected as trustee in November 2014 in School District 45, which comprises West Vancouver, Bowen Island and Lions Bay.