Gerding: School boards are facing a credibility issue with the public

As we head into the home stretch of the 2011 civic election campaign, some school trustee candidates are feeling left out.

As we head into the home stretch of the 2011 civic election campaign, some school trustee candidates are feeling left out of the local political debate.

At least that is the opinion of one Kelowna trustee candidate, Richard Knight.

On my desk sits an email print-out from Knight, accusing the local media of ignoring the trustees.

His proof was that an all-candidates school board forum on Monday at Hollywood Road Education Centre, was attended by about 90 people, 13 candidates and “one lonely reporter from the Capital News.”

We hope that extensive coverage of the school trustee candidates across the Central Okanagan in today’s Capital News will help some of that criticism subside.

But Knight argues that education is a unifying issue in both Kelowna and West Kelowna, which touches on many issues that taxpayers are faced with, from poverty to training people for skilled job vacancies.

And he pegs the school district operating budget at about $190 million a year, which is higher than Kelowna City Hall, and that the school district is the second largest employer in the Okanagan Valley, second only to Interior Health. “With the above in mind,” Knight wrote in his email, “I beseech our public to give education a very sober second look. We are important. Our only real drawback is that our goals are long-term and the results not quite as tangible as bricks and mortar projects…remember, education is really the cornerstone of our society.”

School boards have had many questioning their existence in recent years as the ministry of education continues to centralize control of the education system in Victoria.

Of the operating budget Knight speaks about, somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent is discretionary spending controlled by the school board. The rest is dictated by Victoria through such things as negotiating provincial contracts for teachers, a process that is currently underway.

When this next agreement is made, don’t be surprised if the school board is asked to cut back more of that discretionary spending pot to account for the increased expense of pay hikes for teachers.

It’s not the case that there aren’t issues for trustees to address, but their power to address them has been continually curtailed over the last decade.

Especially when school boards that don’t listen to Victoria get fired.

Our impression is that, while many trustee candidates are talking about improvements to our school system that come with a fiscal cost, the awareness of how little wiggleroom there is to accomplish any of that has not been well thought out.

But with two young children about to soon enter the public school system, I will certainly be taking a greater interest in their learning environment.  And while the individual school, the teachers and to an extent the school district administration will have my attention as a parent, I’m not sure what the trustees say and do will carry the same significance.