School boards failing

As the kids head back to school today for another academic year, they will be working with a revised curriculum and other changes. Education is in constant flux but stuck in a time warp at the senior administrative levels, where a board of trustees, elected by area residents, and a superintendent are the overseers of each of the province's 60 school districts. They used to have their own taxation authority but that got taken away. They used to negotiate their own collective agreements with their teachers and their support staff but that got taken away, too. They used to set policy but, for the most part, that is now done by the Ministry of Education.

That erosion of power and responsibility has taken decades to happen under three different political parties in office. As Marilyn Marquis-Forster steps into her new role as superintendent of School District 57 (Prince George), she will implement decisions made in Victoria by senior education ministry bureaucrats. The board meetings will be little more than an annoying distraction. That's not to say that school board chair Tony Cable and the current trustees aren't working hard and doing their best for area children and parents. The problem is that if they have so little real authority left that there are only a handful of reasons for them to ever meet at all.

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As a result, it's time to phase out school boards in their current form. Fortunately, there is a model that provides a good template of what school boards could be going forward. In the health field, the province is divided into five health authorities, with Northern Health taking the top two-thirds of the province and Interior Health, Fraser Health, Vancouver Island Health and Vancouver Coastal Health handling the rest.

There are no elections. Their boards are appointed by the province, in the same way public library trustees are appointed by municipalities. On one hand, that sounds horribly undemocratic but it removes the politics from these positions. Without campaigning and elections, these boards get straight to the business of governance: overseeing their executive director, making sure policies and procedures are being followed and the budget is balanced.

Having publicly elected trustees to the local library or Northern Health would not make either of these institutions better managed or more accountable to the public than they already are. Put another way, school districts would not be less accountable or poorly managed if appointed trustees oversaw them.

With that in mind, the efficiencies gained from dropping 59 school districts (the 60th is the francophone school district that covers the entire province) become obvious. Along with not having to pay for school trustee elections every four years comes the ongoing savings of going from 59 governing bodies to just five. That's a lot of eliminated duplication and significantly reduced operational costs. Those savings can then be directed right back into the classroom and to students.

The health authority system in B.C. isn't perfect, of course.

Area residents do not enjoy the access to specialists that people living in the other health regions take for granted but that's because of a massive geographic area sparsely populated, not because of sloppy management or poor recruitment and retention. A single northern education authority would have the same challenges as the region's 11 school districts currently do at providing schooling in remote and rural communities.

A northern education authority would benefit Prince George, as the senior administration and all of the jobs that come with them would be based here, as they are with Northern Health. Many of those bureaucratic jobs in the school district offices would gravitate to Prince George in the name of efficiency. That's great for this city but not so good for Williams Lake, Quesnel, Vanderhoof, Terrace, Smithers, Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Dease Lake.

New Brunswick has managed without elected school boards for more than 20 years. In 1992, it went from 42 school districts to 18. Another government dropped that to 14 and in 2012, it was decreased to just seven.

It's time to follow New Brunswick's lead.

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