This is the Life: Our broken education system

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I left a school board meeting last week while it was in progress, having had enough of hearing teachers vent their frustrations and anger. I was sorely tempted to head straight to a bar and pound back a couple of drinks.

Prior to the School District No. 8 (Kootenay Lake) meeting at the Creston Education Centre, I had talked to some teachers and then stood back and watched as school board members and administrators walked through a gauntlet of protest signs. Now, teachers protesting isn’t exactly earth-shattering news these days, their having been working without a negotiated contract for a year. But I was still unprepared for what I was about to hear inside the building.

Speaker after speaker in Creston and Nelson, via videoconference, stood to vent their feelings about the latest round of spending cuts and layoffs. Most took pains to point out that they sympathized with the local board in trying to stretch provincial funding that they believe to be inadequate. Others were less kind, suggesting the board was complicit with the provincial government in continuing to make staffing cuts instead of submitting a deficit budget, something only one other board in the province has done to this point.

Of all the provincial ministries, health and education provide services that no amount of spending could satisfy everyone involved. You could back up an endless string of dump trucks full of money and unload them into these services and no amount would be enough. But here’s the dirty, and not so well kept, secret that we have to take into account: baby boomers, of which I am one, are entering the stage in our lives in which we want and expect health care (or, more accurately, “sick care” as a friend recently described it) to be ready and waiting to accommodate us as we grow ever older. And we are running the show and there are lot of us.

For the better part of a decade, our local politicians have headed to Vancouver or Victoria to hear messages from premiers and finance ministers, all of whom have been issuing the same warning. Each year, heath care is going to eat up a larger proportion of provincial resources than in the previous one. And the end, while in sight, is still a long way off. We expect hospitals and doctors and nurses and clinics and testing facilities to be there when we need them, and if that expectation eats up a huge chunk of the provincial budget, well, too bad.

And, while we are using health-care dollars to the max, we aren’t so generous with other government services. Our kids are grown up and no longer in school and, while we love our grandchildren, we know there are fewer of them than us, and they’ll just have to be happy with the education they are given. If we can push more and more into home schooling, so much the better. It leaves even more money for heath care.

That education is suffering is at least in part due to the fact that declining enrolment does not result in a corresponding reduction in costs. It costs the same to run a school bus with 20 kids as it does 30. It costs the same to operate a classroom with 20 as it does 30, give or take the odd teaching assistant position. And while closing schools cuts some costs, it never translates into the quite the expected savings. So the provincial government looks at the numbers and says this is what we can reasonably afford for education and the local districts are left to try to make it all work, and to take the flack when it has unhappy parents or teachers or other employees.

As I said, I left the meeting early, not because I didn’t think the rest of the evening wouldn’t be important. Instead, I felt overwhelmingly sad to hear firsthand the stories of teachers, some of whom I know to be among our very best. I wasn’t alone in feeling how I did — more than once I saw school board members wipe tears from their eyes.

I don’t like to see negative things happen in our community and not to be able to see even a glimmer of hope. On that evening, however, all I sensed was desperation. I wanted to get angry at someone and I couldn’t find a target. While I’m not big fan of the provincial government, I can’t honestly believe that they don’t want what’s best for our students. It’s the same with school districts and teachers and employees and (most) parents.

Personally, I’d start by getting rid of school boards and a lot of the district administration. It’s a provincial education system, so let the province run it. At least then if the public was unhappy we would know where our fingers should be pointed. Without the ability to tax, school boards have become not much more than pawns in the system, providing a human shield for the provincial government, much like health authorities are designed to do.

The system isn’t working. It’s time for change.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.