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June 10, 2010

Political Report on the VSB

The word "strategic", usually in the context of strategic plan or strategic planning, appears 63 times in Comptroller General Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland's 88 page report on the Vancouver School Board (VSB). Woe be it for StrategicThoughts to criticize use of the word, but the Comptroller's report leaves much to be desired when it comes to providing any example of where other school boards have used a strategic plan to make long term decisions that would see more effective use of their available resources. It is not hard to find boards with strategic plans; it is hard to see how boards use their strategic plans to allocate resources as the plans are frequently very general.

The Comptroller wrote:

"The Ministry of Education could provide stronger leadership by preparing a long term education plan for the province, articulating the vision for education, and its objectives and strategies. Given that schools are a significant investment in public resources, the education plan could cover a period of 5 to 10 years. This would provide support to districts in their long term strategic planning and provide increased stability to districts and transparency to the public."

The Comptroller's observation amounts to saying that the Ministry of Education has failed, but that assessment has received little media attention. She didn't note that districts also suffer from the BC Liberals breaking their promise to provide long-term stable funding, because her terms of reference specifically prohibited her from commenting on provincial funding.

On the first page, the Comptroller wrote: "The current Vancouver School Board of Trustees' governance practices and philosophies are not fully consistent with the requirements of the Act to improve student achievement in a fiscally responsible and cost effective manner." The report isn't helpful in clarifying her criticism. Sections 73 through 84 of the School Act deal with the powers and duties of trustees; it would have been good if the Comptroller would have cited which sections of the Act she believes the VSB trustees fail to meet.

On page 2 the Comptroller went on to write: "The current Board of Trustees has not demonstrated that they have the management capacity to effectively govern the Vancouver School Board or fulfill all of their accountabilities under the Act." In the Comptroller's opinion her observation "is evidenced by the quality of the Board's decisions" and lack of strategic plans. Apparently Vancouver voters hold a different opinion, but the Comptroller demonstrated no understanding of the difference between an elected body, whether it is charged with governing a publicly traded company, a school board, a municipality or a province, and the hand-picked appointed board of a crown corporation. Elected boards hire management expertise. The job of the trustees is to reflect the values of their constituents as they choose between options put before them.

The Comptroller wrote that: "The Ministry of Education could also support Board effectiveness by making trustee participation in orientation and training mandatory." She didn't say how she would set the course requirements for the trustees. There is no precedent for setting educational requirements for elected representatives. Voters usually consider themselves able to determine the successful candidates.

On page 11 of her report, the Comptroller wrote that the School Act regulations require the board to act in a fiscally responsible and cost effective manner. She probably didn't cite which section of which regulation because those words don't appear to exist in the Act or in any of its regulations, perhaps because the terms "fiscally responsible" and "cost effective", like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. In particular, they require minimizing costs subject to specified outcomes and, as the Comptroller noted with respect to the lack of leadership from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry's vision for education is missing-in-action. What you will find throughout Ministry performance documents are objectives "to do better".

It is not until page 36 of her report that the Comptroller got around to the question which nominally caused her to review the VSB, considerations in managing the 2010-2011 budget. She references unique management challenges faced by the VSB with its 19 collective agreements, restraints that cannot be faulted on the current VSB trustees, and she assigns the figure of $975,000 in annual lost productivity and $2.4 million in lost savings that she claims result from not extracting concessions from the unions. On page 37 of her report, the Comptroller wrote that the union issue is "an area where a provincial solution might be needed." It appears the Comptroller hasn't been brought up-to-date with what the Supreme Court of Canada said after the Campbell government tried that approach with the Hospital Employees' Union.

Apart from unworkable suggestions, such as breaking collective agreements, the Comptroller's report doesn't contain any options the VSB trustees did not already know.

Some of the statements from VSB chair Patti Bacchus have been less than diplomatic, but her remarks are understandable when one reads the Comptroller's report; it truly is a political document. Bacchus has called for an independent review of school funding, suggesting it might be done by the auditor general. The Auditor is independent; he decides what he will do, not the provincial government. We can hope he is listening.

Students of public policy should put the Comptroller's VSB report on their reading list. It will be fascinating to take the principles it espouses and apply them to crown corporations and government ministries, areas where the Comptroller has some direct authority. We can be certain to find ministers with inadequate training and ministries that are lacking leadership and vision.