Essay: Trustees should be able to focus on their jobs

Here is Starla Anderson’s essay in the Times-Colonist. She’s given VPEC permission to reprint it:

A Nanaimo Daily News editorial reprinted in the Times Colonist on July 4 asks readers a pertinent question about the recent firing of the Cowichan Valley School Board by the minister of education: “If boards cannot do what they were elected to do, why do we go through the charade of an election every three years to vote for a new board?”

Most citizens assume that school board trustees are elected to mediate the schooling needs and interests of their communities within the mandates of the provincial government. It doesn’t occur to us that a school board’s primary task is to manage school district finances within constraints over which they have little say.

The preamble in the 2012 School Act states that “it is the goal of a democratic society to ensure that all its members receive an education that enables them to become literate, personally fulfilled and publicly useful, thereby increasing the strength and contributions to the health and stability of that society.”

The idealism in this statement provides inspiration to all who are committed to public school education, including those who choose to run the gauntlet of candidacy to become a trustee. And yet, if our 2012 School Act is compared with B.C.’s first School Act of 1872, we find the primary task of school boards to manage finances has not changed since, despite the addition of more than 170 pages of directives. In contrast to our current School Act’s preamble, the 1872 Act’s preamble is more honest in its limited vision:

“Whereas it is expedient that provision should be made for the establishment, maintenance, and management of Public Schools throughout the Province of British Columbia -“

Egerton Ryerson’s influence on the writing of the Ontario School Act of 1871 shaped a centralized public school system that provided a model for B.C.’s School Act of 1872. This model has been pretty much intact since: Provincial governments delegate management powers to locally elected trustees and it is rare for trustees to attempt to negotiate finances with the minister of education. The three school boards that have made this attempt in the past 35 years have all been fired and replaced by “official trustees.”

Idealism motivates most citizens who want to participate in shaping public education and anyone who has not read the School Act is unaware that fundraising has in recent years become part of a trustee’s job description. The 2012 School Act outlines protocols for renting and selling buildings and property, holding local referendums requesting that citizens pay extra taxes for special projects and starting companies such as the one Saanich trustees have decided to organize to make up funding shortfalls by selling online courses overseas.

The nation-builders of the late 1800s would be baffled that the foundation that they laid enabled subsequent politicians and educators to build a complex public-school system that they couldn’t have imagined, and then, in a decade of neglect, the system unnecessarily declined. The consequences of tax cuts made to corporations, small businesses and individuals since 2001 have not only created havoc in school districts, but have given us a shakeup that forces us not to take for granted the world-class public school infrastructure that took more than 100 years to develop.

The Cowichan school trustees who would no longer co-operate with the dismantling of their school district have awakened us all. Their words and actions honour the legacy of social reformer Amos de Cosmos and those 19th-century citizens whose campaign to bring schools to the colony of Vancouver Island was successful. After the opening of Victoria’s Central School under the 1865 Common School Act, de Cosmos wrote in the British Colonist:

“The blessing of education has been presented to the poorest as well as to the richest child – We hope that rumour is falsifying – that the education appropriation will have to be reduced $32,000.”

In this 21st century, it is up to all of us to communicate to government that we expect elected officials to keep our schools moving towards fulfilling the goals stated in their own 2012 School Act. And trustees should not have to concern themselves with raising funds for the viability of their school districts – that is the job of government.

Starla Anderson is a retired teacher and education consultant who lives in Victoria.