Recently and not for the first time, a proposal has been raised at the school board table to reduce the number of trustees to seven from the current nine. The stated intention is to lead by example and show a willingness on the part of trustees to diminish community voice in order to save approximately $25,000 a year within a $70 million district budget.
While it may seem a superficially populist notion, it is in fact a dark attack on the slim thread of local democracy which is charged with speaking for our families and our staff. School districts are awash in well paid and highly motivated administrators who carefully adhere to the ideologies of the provincial government as indeed they are obligated to do. While trustees may not always do as they should and speak clearly on behalf of communities – the position they occupy carries that mandate. Now- more than ever before- this duty is essential as we face off against the relentless underfunding and privatisation of our public education system.
Any elected representation we enjoy is not tied to student enrolment, though the government has insisted on funding our schools in this fashion with disastrous results– it must in fact be tied to voting population which has grown exponentially. In Cowichan we used to have 2 districts (Lake Cowichan and Duncan area) until 1996 – one with five trustees and the other with seven. After amalgamation- forced through as a cost saving measure – our valley lost 3 trustee positions and now has only 9. Apart from a trivialisation of the work of trustees there is no sustainable rationale for reducing our numbers. Most diligent trustees offer many hours of effort, experience and care for the $756 they clear each month. Regardless of their political underpinnings, all trustees approach their duties with a strong sense of civic mindedness.
In countries like France where there is a high ratio of elected representatives to electors (in France there is one elected rep at various levels for every 113 people) there is a strong and purposeful involvement of the population in all political matters and their ability to affect change or oppose regressive measures is incomparable.
All trustees should esteem their role enough to sustain it – this initiative to draw our numbers down suggests we are merely a waste of resources wisely sacrificed in the name of a faux fiscal crisis brought on by tax cuts, war and unequal wealth distribution.
In our district we have- up until very recently -cut a cheque monthly to a single consultant amounting to the same money we budget for the total yearly honourarium of one trustee.
While it is likely the provincial government would like to see fewer trustees or indeed no trustees, it is up to community to choose. In fact the Ministry of Education itself supplies ‘Trustee Variation Guidelines’ which provides a procedure guiding the involvement of community as well as other local governing bodies and interested groups such as aboriginal organisations in deciding if a change in trustee numbers is warranted.
The positions on the board of education do not belong to those who happen to inhabit them in any given moment – they belong to our families, our employees and all members of our community.
If trustees wish to seek the goodwill of their community they can best accomplish this not by reducing their influence to find miniscule savings for the classroom but by bringing their decisions regarding funding priorities and the working and learning conditions in our schools in line with community entitlements and by stepping forward to lead the people in their district in opposing the wilful dismantlement of public education.