Last night's public meeting in Castlegar discussing options for School District 20 (SD 20) as it tries to cope with declining enrollment and funding cuts was, for me, an education.
First, I was both surprised and pleased to see such a huge turn out – more than 300 people attended, despite the Canada/USA hockey game airing at the time (Oh dear, I really have become a hockey mom, haven't I?).
Second, I was pleased at how rational the audience appeared. I have seldom attended a public event with this level of emotion attached that didn't see at least one furious, vitriol-spewing attack on the panel at the front of the room ... except this one. This group seemed to really get what being parents should mean – specifically, the part about leading by example, and promoting rational conversation instead of angry diatribe.
The crowd also seemed to get who the true bad guys are in this scenario.
I often think how much I'd enjoy the same luxury as does our provincial government – to make decisions contrary to the values of its own electorate, cut funding to critical programming while reserving plenty of bit grants to make the daily news cycle with relentless self-congratulatory press releases ... and answer for none of it.
The school board does important work, I'm not denigrating that, but I believe the province sees them as holding only two critical roles: custodian and fall guy.
The province hands them a mess, and they have to clean it up. The province cuts funding, and the board has to figure out how to make what's left work for students in its district ...until the next cuts come.
The board has no say, no input, no choice. The province will do as it wills.
And if you ask me the best part, for the province, is that they have a systemically-guaranteed patsy. Resident fury at changes and school closures is almost always directed, not at the government body forcing the funding cuts, but rather at the representatives whose job it is to stretch less money farther. The board cannot tax to raise money ...that's the province's privilege. But somehow, the board always ends up answering for it.
The crowd last night seemed to really get that.
One man even said, “I get the impression, from your (the board's) presentation, that you're powerless.”
But, as the collective public face of the district, trustees are the ones who will likely take the heat, face the public wrath, as the province makes decisions that appear to be based far more on political machinations than on the education of our children.
Blaming the board isn't like shooting the messenger, it flat-out is shooting the messenger.
One gentleman, James York, also posed an interesting question that has me wondering just how many other school districts are being subsidized by Castlegar tax dollars, as our own school system is being hacked and diminished.
He pointed out that he sees evidence all the time of the city's growth – new subdivisions, a housing crunch, new businesses opening and established ones expanding.
All of this growth brings with it a commensurate increase in property tax (including the portion of every bill that goes to the province for education). Even Celgar has paid the portion of its tax bill that's set aside for education (that's my editorial comment, not York's).
But, because many of these incoming residents/commercial interests are childless or have grown children, the province doesn't have to ensure that same money, gathered specifically to pay for education, is funneled back into Castlegar – they pay out on a per-student basis. So even if we're paying double into the system compared to another community, we could be receiving only half what that other community gets in funding, depending on how many students are in our district.
Hardly seems fair, does it?
I can't say outright that I think that part of the system is wrong. As a socialist at heart, I believe in ensuring high educational standards for all children – in the community, in the province, and in the country as a whole.
Having said that, seeing a reasonably wealthy community trying to cope with rising costs while funds are being ruthlessly cut – not just in terms of declining enrollment, but from capital improvement grants, special needs programming and a dozen other arenas – to one of its two most critical service areas (those being health and education – I won't even touch on the nightmare at work in our health system today)...
There's a dissonance there, for sure. Even the kids I've spoken to can sense that dissonance ...even if some of them will never be able to spell it.
And what I can say is outright wrong, is how more rural areas (with, not incidentally, fewer voters to keep the current government in power) are being penalized with declining enrollment as the fallback excuse, paying more and getting less, while the great voter-concentrations of the province are enjoying the fruits of rural labour and commerce.
It really makes me wonder why provincial elections are allowed to pass with little more than platitudes offered about the value of education – candidates shouldn't be able to achieve office without talking fact-based dollars and sense. More than that, I wonder why those 300+ attendees at last night's meeting aren't penning letters to their MLAs and every member of the provincial cabinet, demanding our budgets become more reflective of our priorities. It'd take less time than attending the meeting ... and would be targeted at the actual decision-makers in this situation.
Yes, the province was very clever in setting up this system, giving the public at large someone convenient to blame – the board of education – so we need never point the finger at the only two genuine culprits in this: the provincial government, and ourselves, the electorate.
I'm glad to see, based on last night's meeting, that many Castlegar residents are seeing through this blatant manipulation, and I sincerely hope they have the courage to act on their own insight, holding the province accountable for what is, at the end of the day, a provincial decision.