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Victoria holds all the education cards

With all apologies to Tim Bennett and the other School District 57 trustees, school boards are the biggest joke in B.C. politics.

With all apologies to Tim Bennett and the other School District 57 trustees, school boards are the biggest joke in B.C. politics.

Bennett and his colleagues care passionately about local children receiving the best public education possible but they have next to no authority to do that.

They are given a sliver of space to work between the local bureaucracy managed by the superintendent (their ability to hire and fire that individual is perhaps the most power they have) and the provincial Ministry of Education in Victoria.

A generation ago, school boards lost their taxation ability and their authority to bargain their own contracts with teachers and support staff. Ever since then, they've been a sham.

Every school board in the province can be fired for any reason at any time by the education minister and replaced with appointees. In their entirety, school boards are one order-in-council from the premier's office away from being permanently (and perhaps mercifully) dissolved in favour of appointed oversight boards similar to what is in place with the provincial health authorities.

Wednesday's decision from Victoria was just another example of who's really in charge of public education in the Prince George area.

Against the specific wishes of Bennett and the entire duly elected board of trustees, the Ministry of Education ordered School District 57 to introduce a ward system for the next election, which is this fall in conjunction with the municipal vote. This change will give both Mackenzie and the Robson Valley their own representatives on the school board, as chosen by the voters living in those areas.

From a purely democratic perspective, Prince George parents just got hosed. Mackenzie and the Robson Valley schools make up less than eight per cent of the School District 57 student population but their two votes now represent 29 per cent of the voting power on the seven-member school board.

Valemount, Mackenzie and the Regional District of Fraser Fort George have been crying for years for this change but it's unclear how this will help them. Prince George based trustees will still sit on five of the seven seats.

Mackenzie Mayor Pat Crook complained about the horrible representation his community has received, citing the latest indignity.

"This year alone they decided to put the Grade 7s into the high school," he said.

"Some people were for it, but the majority of ones that have talked to me about it are against it. They don't want their 12-year daughter hanging around the school when there's 17 or 18-year old boys hanging around."

Not sure what this has to do with educational outcomes or what the District of Mackenzie is doing to keep predatory older teenage boys well away from tween girls when school is not in session now but it also ignores the obvious. The Mackenzie delegate on the next school board still only has one vote out of seven and if the other six trustees accept the superintendent's recommendation that a Grade 7 to 12 high school is the best use of the available educational resources in Mackenzie, that's the way it'll be.

Wards, whether at the school board or municipal level, are always trumpeted as a method to solve political problems to areas and populations that feel neglected and unheard.

While wards do bring a broader diversity of voices to the table, expecting different and better decisions is unrealistic. Both the provincial and federal governments, as well as the regional district, are elected through wards (just another name for a riding or an electoral area) but when area residents don't agree with decisions made in Ottawa, in Victoria or in the regional district's boardroom at First and George, they still claim they are unfairly and inadequately represented.

In defence of school boards, they are a great prep school for future politicians. Both Lyn Hall and Shirley Bond began their political careers on the SD 57 board. While there, they learned hard lessons on frugal spending with tight budgets and making difficult and painful decisions, like closing schools, when the money isn't there. It made them both the savvy and sensitive politicians they are today. If Bennett has future political aspirations (and hopefully he does), his school board experience will serve him well.

With or without wards, however, school boards as political entities in this province have little power and therefore little value. That's the real irony about Wednesday's announcement.

The unelected education bureaucracy in Victoria overruled a group of locally elected trustees about how to best form and elect future school boards.

In other words, a distant, faceless bureaucracy, with no direct accountability to area voters, decided how democracy should work in School District 57.

That realization should give pause to anyone, from concerned parents to the mayor of Mackenzie, who blames school trustees for unpopular education decisions.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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