Tagged: school boards

Two ways NS could have better schools for less money

For years, school enrollments in Nova Scotia have plummeted while school board budgets rose faster than inflation. Last winter, the Dexter Government asked boards to think about ways to operate with less. The boards and their colleagues in arms, the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, reacted with a Kill the Friendly Giant strategy.

In the end, the government imposed modest cuts, and the boards will continue to operate as they have for decades. It was a missed opportunity for reform.

Well, before the notion of school reform goes dormant for another five years, here are two ways school boards could work better for less money.

1. End the demeaning way we hire new teachers

If a freshly minted education graduate wants to make a career as a teacher in Nova Scotia, she must begin with three to five years of purgatory on the substitute teachers’ list. This often means moving back in with mom and dad and waiting by the phone each morning to see if she’ll be working that day at substandard pay. It means turning down other work so as to be available when the phone rings.

A young Cape Bretoner I know graduated from Mount Alison five years ago and approached the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board about a teaching position.

“You can go on the substitute teacher’s list,” he was told.

“I have a chance to teach full time in Mexico this coming year,” he replied, “How about if I do that for a year and then come back and apply for a job with the board? I’ll have learned a new language, gotten to know a new culture, and this will make me a better teacher.”

“That’s great,” the board official told him. “And when you come back, you can go on the substitute list.”

My young friend taught in Mexico for two years, then for three more in Colombia. He’ll never return to Cape Breton, because he had too much self-respect to mooch off his parents while the school board tossed him two or three days of work a week for three to five years.

The substitute teacher’s list operates as a negative sieve for potential teachers, culling those with the greatest ambition, energy, and self-respect. It is also rife with opportunities for corruption, because those four years on the substitute list offer no end of opportunities to favor family members, friends, and flatterers.

No other organization of comparable size hires its staff in this retrograde manner. School boards should adopt modern personnel practices, subjecting candidates to objective testing, rigorous interviews, careful reference checks, and probationary hiring. That’s how smart organizations hire the best people, and if students need anything, it’s the very best teachers we can attract.

2. Get superintendents, middle managers, and non-teaching principals out of the union.

Many Nova Scotians would be surprised to learn that superintendents, directors, sub-system supervisors, principals, vice-principals, department heads, and various consultants and coordinators working on secondment in the Department of Education all belong to the Teachers’ Union and are subject to the collective agreement.

Do I even have to spell out how completely crazy this is? Is there another organization in the western world that operates this way? The Superintendent is the Chief Executive Officer of the school board. Does the CEO of Bell Canada belong to the Communications, Energy, and Paper Workers’ Union? Does Donald Sobey belong to the Food and Commercial Workers’ Union? Does Joe Shannon carry a membership card in the Teamsters’ Union? The very idea is insane.

This cozy interlocking membership doesn’t simply serve students and parents badly, it’s equally a rip-off for teachers. A teacher needs a union that will honestly represent her interests when conflicts arise with a principal, curriculum supervisor, or superintendent. The school board, parents, and students need to know that the people managing the school system will not kowtow to the union. When the same people manage the union and the school system, no one can have confidence.

Note that neither of these reforms aims directly at saving money. But one would insure that the best possible people take on the most important jobs in the school system, the jobs at the heart of the system’s purpose. The other would ensure that managers manage free from relationships fraught with conflicting interests. Both reforms would make our schools run more efficiently, and that would save the system money.

These reforms won’t happen any time soon, because they require a government with the gumption to take on the union in a what would surely be a tough fight. The Dexter Government may not stray far from the center of the political road, but it has shown no appetite for taking on its traditional benefactors in the labor movement. The government underestimates the extent to which rural Nova Scotians are ready for a government that will cut the school boards’ garments to fit the cloth.

Education funding — how to kill reform

Many assume the Dexter Government made a mistake when it asked school boards to consider—and report back on—the consequences of a hypothetical 22 percent cut in their budgets. They say this gave the boards and the NSTU a license to frighten voters, and thus rally support for their comfortable status quo. Contrarian reader (and retired Education Dept. bureaucrat) Wayne Fiander puts the case vividly:

Having served two premiers in this province, I can say with some confidence that a real education “right sizing exercise” is necessary to preserve public education. No government has yet tackled this issue correctly. They start with the end, and the current mess, a 22% cut—and the school boards and teachers union rub their hands together: They know this play for one more year of funding in their sleep.

Party functionaries and government flaks are in high gear trying to undo the perceived damage. Some assume the plan was a crude bait-and-switch strategy: threaten a huge cut and hope for a sigh of relief when you “only” cut 10 or 12 percent.

Maybe. But I’m not convinced there has been that much damage. In most communities, teachers are regarded as having generous terms of employment, and many Nova Scotians will recognize the union/board caterwaul of the last month as self-serving. In this, as in so many areas requiring tough choices by government, the public is more ready to be treated like grownups than politicians, flaks, and media suppose.

A decade of annual five and six percent budget increases in the face of a 30,000-student drop in enrolment is not sustainable. That’s not a hard concept for taxpayers to grasp.  Fiander thinks government should have started, not with a prescriptive cut, but with a vision of a changed education system. (I have done some light editing here for clarity.)

Government strategy should have been to lay out the vision of what the education system would look like, and then asked the school boards to respond. Part of the vision should have been to reduce school boards or downsize the Department of Education, as taxpayers can’t afford both. If that vision were laid out first, the sacred cows would not be put up for sacrifice, as parents would know they were not being touched. The sacred cows that would be on the table would be classroom sizes of 15 going to 20 (with correspondingly fewer teachers), closing small schools so students could  get better access to other needs, and putting more operations in private hands.

Reader Denis Falvy likewise urges taxpayers to follow the money:

About 80 to 85 percent of the $1.1 billion spent by the Department of Education goes to the line item, “Formula Grants to School Boards.” Using the Halifax District School Board as an example, approximately 75 percent of its $400-million budget goes to school administration, 59 percent of which is spent on the line item, “Salaries – Teachers.”

No doubt cuts can and should be made to the 25 percent of the education budget not allocated to school boards, and no doubt cuts can be made to the 40 percent of the school board budget not allocated to teachers—after all, teaching is what the department should be all about, not 60 or 75 percent about. But a successful long term approach toward education expenses logically has to come from the line item, “Salaries – Teachers.”