Pension off School Boards

Commentary, Education, Dennis Owens

Why do we have school divisions administered by elected boards? Their purpose, as defined by the Manitoba Association of School Trustees is “to provide for the educational needs of the community’s school-aged children.” While local control of public schools may in the past have been an effective means of accomplishing that goal, circumstances have radically changed. Stephen Lawton, the author of Canadian School Finance, sized it up well: “Most school boards are like mushrooms. They’re kept in the dark and fed manure all the time and so they rarely focus on the business of teaching and learning.”

Locally elected school boards have occupied centre stage in the provision of education in Manitoba from its inception. They once offered positive benefits like local control and involvement in a crucial public service. Indeed, those values were reflected in a vibrant, decentralized system sixty years ago, when 1,875 school boards operated throughout the province. The key players—trustees, administrators, principals and teachers—all had to keep their ears to the ground, to an electorate who paid the bills and to students and parents who depended on their skills.

The system worked. Historically, our public school system performed very well, providing high quality education at less than a third of today’s cost in constant dollars. The system stressed continuous excellence and improvement, and constant testing kept it accountable. But indicators of both quality and cost effectiveness are much less positive than they were just a generation ago. Measures from the Canadian Test of Basic Skills indicate that student performance has slipped by at least one grade level over the last generation. And a tripling of costs has strained the ability of the public purse to maintain the public school system.

Accountability is a sham. As with other voting rates in Canada, participation in school board elections is at a dismal low, averaging below 20 percent. The few choices on the ballot are unrecognizable and their policies a distant mystery. But provider unions—which represent teachers and support staff—put a lot of effort and money into electing their preferred candidates. The economic term for the result is “provider capture,” where the main beneficiaries of services turn out to be stakeholders. The buffer by school boards between the interests of providers, consumers and the public purse has been reduced in its effectiveness because education activists tend to dominate them.

The national trend towards fewer, larger school districts—during the 90s the number shrank by half—also belies the chimera of local control. Further, evidence presented on the Frontier’s website shows virtually no correlation between larger administrative units and educational effectiveness. A series of chaotic forced mergers in Manitoba, with their attendant turf wars, put even more distance between consumers and trustees. The promise of reduced overheads quickly evaporated. Everybody in the larger work units—teachers and support staff—had their pay packets topped up to the higher of the merged scales. “Levelling up” cost the system in the first post-merger year an extra seven percent, or $540 per child.

If it’s easier for unions to roll larger divisions, the trustees also do it to us with equanimity. With cause, the Winnipeg Free Press has long complained about the manner in which more than half of local property taxes imposed for schools are slipped into municipal tax notices, with representation and accountability once removed. Public school boards provide mixed results in spite of constantly rising budgets because they are organized as cost-plus monopolies. It’s far easier to slap up mill rates than manage assets well, trim overheads or adopt practices that reward efficiency. Another victim is the concept of equity, with more efficient divisions spending far less than bloated beasts like the Winnipeg School Division.

In 1989, ending school boards in New Zealand dramatically reduced spending on out-of-class costs, even as academic performance shot up. As with New Zealand’s national government, our provincial Department of Education dictates all the important details of school policy, matters like curriculum, employment policy and spending mandates. With little to do beyond organizing bake sales and fielding complaints about school performance they can do little to change, school board trustees are expensive middlemen. Despite falling school populations, many boards are reluctant to offload even unneeded assets.

There are better ways to go. In his groundbreaking study, Making Schools Work, Dr. William Ouchi looked at 223 schools in six cities, including the public school division in Edmonton, one of the best in North America. He concluded that decentralized management systems—where individual principals, not administrators in a central office control school budgets and personnel—have produced significant, lasting improvements in school district efficiency and educational performance. With greater freedom to shape programs and hire specialists as needed, principals act as entrepreneurs and innovate. To accommodate challenged divisions, Ouchi recommends per pupil payment through a weighted formula, augmented with full school choice.

The model of school-based management solves the problems of accountability, cost effectiveness and academic performance at the same time. The Province calls the tune, so it should pay the bills. But it shouldn’t send the money to our increasingly dysfunctional school districts. It should attach the resources to each student, and require educators to test and test again to make sure they’re earning it.

Here’s the winning formula in Edmonton, in the words of that district’s retiring superintendent, Angus McBeath:

All funds to operate our school district come from the provincial government. Boards in Alberta don’t collect local taxes. After you peel off . . .a couple of [overheads], all the remaining money in Edmonton is allocated to schools. Principals have a huge level of authority over and around the shaping of school culture, the staffing in that school, the environment, how people behave and the kind of standards that are set for that school. Schools select the number and type of staff needed in the school, the organizational and instructional strategies to be used, and all services, supplies and equipment.

Let’s give our venerable public school boards a medal for meritorious past service and pension them off. We don’t need them.

This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press April 13, 2006.