Is the provincial government’s “transformational change” review of educational governance simply a process to introduce cost cutting measures or, alternatively, provide a rationale to increase taxes to fund education?
Education Minister Don Morgan is well placed to head up the project, given his earlier experience as chair of the Saskatoon Public School Board, although he probably could have saved the cost of Dan Perrins’ contract and three weeks of time because he already knows how little flexibility school boards have in their budgets, including what money is spent on administration and governance.
Will we get value in converting locally-elected boards to government-appointed boards like the health regions? According to reports, the Saskatoon Health Region saved a whopping $76,000 last year on governance costs. While it is nothing to sneeze at, it is less than minuscule when compared to the health board’s budget and does little to address the public’s concerns about the condition of our hospitals and the services provided.
The Saskatoon Public School Board, which provides services primarily within the city limits, is reported to have spent $741,000 on governance costs, while the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Board, which provides services within and beyond the city’s boundaries, spent $832,000.
Saskatchewan School Boards Association president Shawn Davidson said comparing school board governance costs to health boards is unfair, as often a school board’s governance costs will include funding for scholarships, membership fees, election costs and community council costs. In Saskatoon, the board budget will also include decent remuneration and perks for trustees, board lunches and dinners, travel and conference fees and possibly the long-service and superannuation gifts. The question will be whether a regional board would consider these expenditures necessary and continue to cover these costs.
Davidson also commented that replacing elected boards with appointed boards would “fly in the face of democracy.” That may be a concern to those working within or utilizing schools, but I don’t think the wider community would be riled.
In the last civic election, two individuals ran for school board in my ward. Neither knocked on my door nor left information about their election platform. The result was that I didn’t blind vote by picking a random name on the ballot and marking an X.
And I would wager that if I stood in front of the Saskatoon Public School Division offices on Third Avenue and 21st Street and randomly canvassed 100 people from the general public, asking them to name me two of the 10 trustees currently elected to the board, 95 per cent or more of those asked wouldn’t be able to answer this question. I suspect that after the school boards lost their authority to tax and meetings were no longer televised, the trustees were lost in the hinterland.
What are the pros and cons of an appointed board vis-à-vis an elected board? On an appointed board, you can place people with known skill sets to do the job, that being individuals with financial, business and/or administrative backgrounds, human resources specialists, educators and the like. (In reality appointees will likely have ties to whatever government is in power.)
On the elected side, you can have representatives tied to their communities, some of whom will have the necessary credentials while others may not. An appointed board would likely be more removed from system employees and users and thus be inclined to make decisions based on best practices while an elected board (hoping to be re-elected) would be more prone to satisfying the wants and needs of those same constituents.
As for policy development, school divisions are largely governed by legislation and policy is developed to reflect the legislation. Outside of that, policy is created by administration, scrutinized by legal services for any contravention of any legislation and explained to the board before it is approved by a board vote. That practice would likely continue regardless of the format of the board.
The tricky part is how the government would deal with the Catholic systems which have a constitutional right to provide educational services and which is written in stone. Part and parcel with that stone tablet is school governance by those of the Catholic faith, meaning if you are not Catholic you cannot run for or sit on a Catholic board. If you create regional boards, do you do one for the public schools and one for Catholic schools? To treat the two systems differently would be folly and create public discord.
For those with school-age children or grandchildren, don’t get too upset about this review. The common essential learnings will not change and all governments know the political power of the education community. For taxpayers, it is simply a matter of what pocket you will pay your increase from.
This provincial government is shy about increasing income tax, so expect an increase on your property tax bill. Although this is the most regressive form of taxation in that it does not factor in the ability of people to pay, it is the easiest way to steer the disgruntled towards civic politicians, who issue the bill, and away from the provincial realm.
We should appreciate that our provincial government is under duress because of declining revenue and a growing deficit. What I don’t get is why as a community we show little concern about growing debt by our civic and federal governments, yet are fixated by the provincial situation.
And this too shall pass.