Regardless of what the provincial government may say, the Vancouver school district's budget woes are legitimate. One of the points made by Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid is that Surrey has a larger school population than Vancouver, yet Vancouver has higher administration costs. The minister cites this as an obvious inefficiency or problem with Vancouver's budgeting - where 90 percent of the monies go toward salaries and benefits. The thing is, Surrey's administration staff is younger overall than Vancouver's. Ditto for its teaching staff. In fact, Vancouver has, by all accounts, one if not the most senior staff in the province in terms of length of service. Hence, Surrey's labour costs are lower per employee while Vancouver's are higher.
As a result, even though the province has increased per student funding each year in the past decade, that funding hasn't kept pace with the "real" labour-related increases in education costs.
Really the only way to fix what is now a perennial problem is for the province to do something drastic. And it is the province that has to act because it controls the raising of money through taxes and the distribution of that money to school districts via annual grants.
Moreover, the province negotiates the contract with the British Columbia Teachers' Federation. The individual school districts aren't at that bargaining table.
Vancouver could close schools but it's prohibited from selling schools by the province. The same prohibition applies to all school districts. If Vancouver or any other school district were to get the province's permission to sell a school, no doubt the government would determine what would be done with any funds.
In addition, there are class size limits in place under provincial legislation. As a result, school districts aren't in a position to lay off very many teachers without running into problems with that legislation.
About a year ago, Premier Gordon Campbell floated the idea of getting rid of school boards. He didn't go very far with that suggestion.
Maybe he found too many school trustees who said 'please fire us, we're tired of being the whipping boys and girls for everything that goes wrong in public education.'
I am not alone in thinking that school boards play an important function of deflecting the heat from the province concerning British Columbia's public education woes.
I don't believe the government (and that goes for the previous New Democrat administration) is prepared to do the work of shaking up the public education system.
Our politicians have always been and are still afraid to take on any of the unions or be so bold as to suggest that taxpayers should invest in the education of future citizens by paying more tax now.
Nevertheless, it is time to stop avoiding these issues. It would be the grown up thing to do.
Eleanor Gregory is a former provincial Liberal constituency association president. She also served as Non-Partisan Association school trustee in Vancouver where she continues to practice law.