Diary of a Mad Trustee Open Board Meeting May 4th 2011

Principiis Obsta…Finem Respice

Resist the Beginning…Consider the End

 I suppose the theme of this meeting was decision-making and all the mental and verbal gymnastics we perform as we set the seal on any number of critical details.

Let’s talk about the hard decisions. We all make them from time to time. What makes any decision difficult?

Assuming responsibility for gathering a wide insight, quality information and a full perspective guides the beginning of such a choice- any important decision should come from the heart, the head and the driving principles you live by.

Actually, there are no hard decisions when it comes to the school district budget. There is only the choice we make as trustees between dutifully endorsing the vision of the senior staff which is really just the vision of the ministry and fighting for our schools as we are elected to do. There is no real glory in either path. However, if deep down you really think this handcart to hell is all our kids and staff deserve, it may comfort you to characterise your decision as the result of a heartbreaking process. Since this often involves reading through a document built by the highest paid district employees and pronouncing it essentially satisfactory at the assigned moment how truly difficult can this be? Yes, there are last minute well staged grand gestures which come at the expense of other programs, services and jobs. But whatever senior staff permits us to save by 11th hour juggling will teeter in crisis and operate under threat as the next budget unfolds. I must admit – I never struggle over the decisions I make during the budget period but I do agonise over the choices the majority makes – I don’t imagine my choices create the same distress.

Whatever decisions we as trustees may make, it is the kids, their families and our employees who pay the price. Whenever a kind hearted person in the schools offers sympathy for the conditions under which I labour as a trustee, I remind them my decisions reverberate through their working lives and the learning lives of the students while I just get to go home.

This meeting, a motion was brought which as it stated sought to:

 “direct senior staff to review and revise the 2011/2012 budget draft in order to incorporate costs which may now arise from the reversal of Bills 27 and 28 and the responsibility to build budgets to restore learning conditions to the levels which existed prior to the imposition of those bills i.e. funding for smaller classes, teaching positions and services to students with special needs.”

 Last month in a long awaited decision (there’s that word again), BC Supreme Court Justice Griffin ruled the 2002 Bills 27 (Education Services Collective Agreement Act) and Bill 28 (Public Education Flexibility and Choice Act) violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

 As this legislation removed the language in the teachers’ collective agreement which defined class-size limits and guarantees of support for students with special needs this violation kicked off a decade of accelerated decline in our schools. The court has given the provincial government 12 months to resolve this matter. In consultation with teachers, this should allow a return to the improved conditions the teachers had- over time- been able to seek through bargaining.

In BC, a direct outcome of these Bills has been a dark age of deterioration and bureaucracy in our public education system and the subsequent withdrawal of resources. The enforcement of Bills 27 and 28 allowed the government to yank over $3 billion from our public schools. The call from our teachers for a return of $275 million this year seems a small penalty for this theft. Care to ponder over the allocation of the $3 billion? Something tells me whatever the government did with that money it will have been a poor substitute for spending it on our kids.

Since 2002 in BC, class sizes increased as about 3,000 teaching positions were cut, including 1,400 school counselors, teacher-librarians, learning assistance, and other specialist teachers who work with students with a multitude of challenges and gifts. Perhaps a more powerful way of viewing all this is to imagine our schools complete with all those people and the programs and services they provide.

I may have missed it but I don’t recall any apology or regret from our new premier for her role as Minister of Education during this exercise. I guess being an authoritarian overlord means never having to say you’re sorry.

As if this was not terrible enough, in 2006 the government introduced Bill 33 (comically called the Education Learning Enhancement Statutes Amendment Act – fresh from a brainstorming session at the Ministry for Ironic Nomenclature). Bill 33 replaced the collective agreement arrangements and subsequently heaped an entirely new layer of Byzantine bafflegab on the shoulders of our districts in the form of miserly standards upheld by a cruel system of endless meetings and paperwork.

If you have been an educator during this period as a teacher, principal or superintendent your time has been gobbled up with these antics either to:

a) prove your district was living up to the crappy standards in the Bill or failing to do so as long as an exhausted teacher could be compelled into agreeing with the organisation of the class and

b) swallow up any hope the prime directive of your day would be educating children.

So now, we enter a new phase – one which should bring us real opportunities to compel the government now bloodied in court for its excess. How can we best stand up with our teachers – how can we best realise the promise of this dramatic decision?

Hence the motion above –  obviously if we must as a district observe the criteria of class size and composition protocols or something akin which featured in the rubbished collective agreement  by next spring, it makes sense we calculate these needs into this next school year budget. While we are at it, we should really insist this reaches through the whole year .Ethically since the government had no legal grounds for dissolving the terms they had negotiated for our teachers and the children in their classrooms, we should set aside this monstrous enterprise and revert to the legal language which has hovered in waiting all these years.

All these years -while an entire cohort of children traveled through our schools from kindergarten to grade 10. This can and should make even the strong shed tears of sorrow and frustration.

The motion has been referred to the next meeting and I still have faith (despite not drinking or smoking dope). Since that meeting, our premier has confirmed her government will not seek an appeal. In the interim budget brought down in February by former Finance Minister Colin Hansen, he included almost $1 billion in unallocated monies to allow the new premier to put her imprint on the province. This same budget set aside $600 million in 2011, as well as an additional $1.5 billion over the next three years. So you see – there is money and what better place to spend that money then our schools. What an opportunity in a year which may include another provincial election.

We cannot blithely disregard the likely prospect this government will download the costs of this court victory onto districts next spring. Since Section 111 of the School Act offers a legal rebuke for trying to build budgets which meet needs we should welcome the chance to use legislation to actually meet some of those needs. Sometimes the law can work for us- not against us.

Sometimes…

The teachers will fight for their conditions of work which serendipitously are also the conditions of learning. If we insist our senior staff observes the standards done away with by unconstitutional legislation in calculating the needs in our district we can then begin to reassign the confiscated resources of a decade as well as placing our own particular brand of pressure on this government when it may actually enjoy some bounce.

“Lawless are they that make their wills their law.”

William Shakespeare
 

 

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We are- as at least one or two of you know –  in the midst of budget deliberations and as usual it is a slapdash drill which simply starts with a premise ( heretofore known as a draft budget) and grits its teeth until everyone has run out of rant and gone home. The senior staff and some trustees know the sound and fury will die down if they just hang on.

We have surveys and public presentations; we have numerous pleas and messages from our employees and our parents. People stand up and speak eloquently and with passion. Generally, it is all rooted in good heartedness and thought for our kids. It can be a time of year when trustees talk to our employees and our families more than any other time. And then it is over as it will be soon. There is no long term plan; there is no long term dream. We cut our expenditures by damaging public assets and often incur expense in excess of anything we save.

Whatever we do, the repercussions will echo through the classrooms in the coming year.

Pulling all the cuts off the table and filing a deficit budget to fund the services and programs we have been forced to remove is in contravention of the School Act but the School Act is in contravention of the well being of our schools so we are even.

The no cuts budget which our District Budget Committee supports, poses a very simple question. I have a few more.

·         Do you support further cuts to our kids learning or don’t you?

·         Do you believe as the editorial in last Friday’s Newsleader insists this is about merely adjusting our priorities?

·         Do our problems originate from declining enrolment or from a funding formula which is based on headcount?

·         Does the deterioration in our public schools create declining enrolment?

·         Can you pay for cuts and closures with more cuts and closures?

·         Should 38 fewer students in our schools this year mean fewer resources for the thousands who are there?

 I thought I would include some of the comments which have arisen during the budget discussions this year.

“I am greatly opposed to the cuts currently being considered in the 2011/2012 draft budget.  I firmly believe that with the reinstatement of funding protection now is the time to submit a no cuts budget .The cuts that are being considered do not honour the district strategic plan, nor are they in the best interest of our number one priority – our children.  There are over a million dollars in proposed cuts coming directly from our classrooms.  This is outrageous and completely unacceptable.”

“Critical maintenance, custodial and transportation services are regarded as expendable. The funding squeeze by Victoria and the dutiful cutback budgets of local school districts are undercutting both our kids’ right to an education and the wellbeing of the staff who provide this service. We believe the students’ right to quality public education is an essential part of a democratic society. These endless cutbacks must stop. “

“The Specialist Teachers provide opportunities for teachers to participate in rich and diverse learning experiences in both a timely and responsive manner to the needs of specific sites and teachers. Specialist Teachers support site administration in communicating district initiatives through active mentoring and modeling. Each Specialist Teacher provides an expertise that is key to the success of all learners in School District #79.”
 

 

“It may be time for you as our elected reps to say ‘no more’ and submit a budget which at least for this year makes no further cuts to a system which is struggling to meet its obligations to our kids, their families and the people who work for SD79. We urge you to tender a no cuts budget to the Ministry of Education for the 2011/2012 budget year as a protest and as a sound alternative to past practice.”

 “Once significant programming cuts take place, it is usually the precursor to more ominous impacts on service delivery and support to our students. Once cuts to programming are implemented in schools, ESPECIALLY small schools, the future of those small schools is in peril. Smaller schools cannot withstand a “chipping away” of programming, services and staff. They will not survive. Once the small school is gone, it will not be back, or brought back even when financial times improve for the better.”

The no cuts budget proposal is really just a means to express our frustration with the wholesale withdrawal of resources from our classrooms. It is more appropriate than providing the usual lists of unfulfilled needs to an indifferent ministry so they can direct them to the round file. It is a simple protest with a simple message.

I think by now we may all be considering the distinct possibility the government has decided to use money or in this case the lack of money to shape the public education system in their own image –thoughtless and punitive.

I keep this in mind as I make my decisions.
Hell- even Doctor Who said ‘Bad laws are made to be broken’.
And I just can’t argue with Doctor Who.
 

Your Trustee Pal

Eden

 

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