B.C. misled Saanich school board: documents

The Saanich school board says it has obtained “troubling” documents that suggest it was misled by the B.C. government.

It says it was told by the Education Ministry in March that the district would have to integrate its locally developed openStudent software system with the B.C. Services Card, and that complying would likely cost millions of dollars.

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The district says the revelation came as a surprise and prompted trustees to scrap the $1.5-million project, which would have tracked student registrations, grades, attendance and other records. Eleven people lost their jobs.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender criticized the district at the time, saying it should have known all along about the requirement to integrate openStudent with the B.C. Services Card, a new multi-purpose identity and health card.

But what Fassbender didn’t tell the public was that, about five months earlier, the Education Ministry’s own student information system, MyEducationBC, had been given a temporary exemption from the service-card requirement.

Saanich has obtained documents under the freedom of information law showing the exemption was granted on Oct. 2, 2013, and will run until February 2018, at which point the ministry could apply for an extension.

The Saanich board of education issued a statement on Wednesday stating that at no time was Saanich offered a similar exemption. It called the new information “very troubling.”

Board chairman Wayne Hunter described the revelation as a “big disappointment” and said trustees will convene an emergency meeting next week to consider their options. “I just think it appears to be a continuation of us receiving ... misleading information,” he said in an interview. “We’ll just have to see how the board determines a direction.”

Fassbender, who is dealing with the ongoing teachers’ strike, was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, but ministry staff issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

“The ministry has not misled Saanich,” the statement said. “We don’t know why Saanich submitted a [freedom of information] request regarding the temporary exemption. Saanich school district just had to ask the ministry about the exemption and the ministry would have advised about it.”

The ministry also disputed the district’s version of events, saying that a meeting in March between deputy minister Rob Wood and Saanich superintendent Nancy Macdonald focused on the feasibility and financial risks of the openStudent project.

The ministry said Wood indicated that if the district wanted Saanich students to collaborate online with others across the province, “they would likely need to be able to integrate” with the B.C. Services Card at some point. “But he did not say they had to use it for their own system, merely that in the future when [the card] came online, integration could be another potential challenge.”

The statement said the requirement to comply with the B.C. Services Card has been in place since December 2012 and remains part of the MyEducationBC contract.

“It was the ministry that decided to seek a temporary exemption because the service card is not fully implemented,” the statement said. “However, in no way does this let the vendor off the hook for the contractual requirement.”

The statement said Fujitsu, which signed a 12-year deal last fall to deliver MyEducationBC, is prepared to meet the service-card requirement once the government is ready.

Saanich began working on openStudent in 2011 with the goal of using local expertise to create a made-in-B.C. system for tracking registration, attendance, grades and other student records. By using freely available open source tools, officials believed they could develop the system for less than $5 million, with yearly maintenance pegged at less than $1 million. The system was slated to go live in some district schools this fall.

MyEducationBC is expected to cost the province up to $9.4 million a year.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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