School Budgets, Expedient Legislation and Illegality

Geoff Johnson, Retired School Superintendent ( Of which district? Still a secret, apparently ) is consistent in getting it wrong in his columns on public education. I can’t let his columns go by and just sit here and shake my head. Here’s my response to his latest  on school budgets and trustee ethics.

When the Law and Ethics Collide

Geoff Johnson’s writing on public education always stops me in my mental tracks, but not for the right reasons.

Johnson (who refers to himself as a “retired superintendent of schools”, but of which schools remains a mystery), in “Illegal school board budgets an ethical issue” (Times Colonist March 21) turns his selective attention to the possible rejection by some school trustees of annual School District budgets.

These budgets are crafted by school district senior administration who put significant effort into complying with the inadequate, unpredictable, inconsistent and capricious funding given to School Boards by the Ministry of Education via the Treasury Board. These budgets are presented to School Trustees, the representatives of partner groups and the few members of the public who attend a few meetings to discuss and analyze them to the best of our collective ability. Complete understanding of a School District line item budget requires financial understanding beyond what most citizens have.

Trustees have at least a big picture understanding of the general financial status of their school district, but in many school districts trustees do not have access to the entire line item budget without employing notable insistence. Once received, the line item budget is a convoluted document that requires a great deal of explanation by financial experts, which again is not in all districts easily accessed. Certainly, the time constraints on staff is one reason.

Working in the general understanding arena, what I know as a trustee from reading the line item budget, the general statement budget, the audited budget, asking uncounted questions, reading every comment made by any participant in a recent survey of partner groups for School District 61, and taking into account the comments from the few citizens who attended round table meetings (equivalent events are scheduled by School Districts all across the province), is that in the words of one representative participant, “There is nothing left to cut”.

Johnson has conveniently narrowed his attention by making no reference to the International Labour Organization’s (a UN body) 2003 citing of the BC Liberal government for repeatedly violating the rights of thousands of public sector employees by refusing to negotiate contracts and by using legislation to arbitrarily enforce its will. (Sound familiar?)

Johnson also neglects to mention that in 2001, this government arbitrarily designated public education an essential service under the Labour Relations Code. Critically important, yes. Essential service like emergency health care or policing, no. Also unmentioned is the April 13, 2011 Supreme Court of British Columbia ruling in regard to Bills 27 and 28 (enacted in 2002): that those laws that took away collective bargaining rights from teachers were unconstitutional – unconstitutional! – and in breach of the CanadianCharter of Rights and Freedoms.

Understandably, the BCTF will be mounting a legal challenge to Bill 22, passed on March 14 with considerable opposition, and certain to be found to be illegal as were Bills 27 and 28.

Citizens expect legislation to be based on more than the exercise of raw power, and to be enacted for better reasons than expedience. The laws enacted by this government in regard to public education have the worst of motivations.

Martin Luther King Jr. said “ An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law. “

If I have to choose between standing with the makers of unjust laws, or with Martin Luther King Jr, you know where you can find me.

About Diane McNally