Editorial: Get the politics out of education

When the provincial government announced funding last month to keep some rural schools open, the timing looked suspicious. More than 260 schools have closed in recent years, and only now, with an election in the offing, a lifeline suddenly appears?

However, as details emerge, it’s not only the timing that invites skepticism. There are curiosities in how the money is being parcelled out.

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Two schools on Vancouver Island, both in Campbell River, were told they qualified and both applied for help. Oyster Elementary asked for $508,000, while Discovery Passage Elementary requested $524,000.

The local school board based those figures on the Education Ministry’s published guidelines.

Instead, the ministry offered $228,000 for Oyster River and $161,000 for Discovery Passage, less than 40 per cent of the total amount sought for the two schools. When queried, ministry officials admitted this would not cover the full operating costs. As a result, the two Campbell River schools will close.

This experience appears to differ markedly from the treatment some other facilities are enjoying. Osoyoos Secondary was given everything it asked for, to a total of $387,000.

Kersley Elementary and Parkland Elementary, both in Quesnel, were likewise fully funded. Trout Creek Elementary in Summerland ($370,000) and West Bench Elementary in Penticton ($369,000) were also treated more generously.

The point? Campbell River is in an NDP-held riding. The other schools are all in B.C. Liberal constituencies.

Now this might simply be coincidence. There are also additional announcements to come; these might even things out.

Still, a hint of politics lingers, perhaps because of the broader, poisonous environment that has settled over K-12 education in B.C.

In Vancouver, an out-and-out donnybrook is underway. The local school board says it faces a $21.8-million shortfall. Education Minister Mike Bernier is having none of it. The board owns a property called Kingsgate Mall worth about $80 million.

Sell the mall, was Bernier’s response, and the problem would be gone. Of course, it wouldn’t. A one-time cash infusion will not resolve an annually recurring deficit in the $20-million range.

But Bernier’s public statement showed how far his relationship with the province’s largest school board has deteriorated: “I am disappointed that the Vancouver School Board has put their desire to own a mall ahead of services for students … the VSB seems to have forgotten its mission is to educate students — not maintain ownership of as much property as possible.”

That should cool things down.

In fairness, there is more than enough fault to go around here. Vancouver’s school board has repeatedly locked horns with the ministry. It sometimes appears the board relishes the role of political opponent to whatever government is in office.

Yet the unmistakable reality is that our K-12 education system has become an ideological battleground, with both sides spoiling for a fight. It appears the drawn-out strike two years ago, and the settlement that ended it, settled nothing.

Of course, other social services have their controversies. The Children’s Ministry is in near-constant uproar. Our wait times for elective surgery are a disgrace; family physicians are in short supply.

But no one attributes to these difficulties an ulterior political motive. Money, or the lack of it, is usually blamed.

Education, however, is different — indeed, it occupies a league of its own. There is not even a vestige of trust left.

None of this will change before the election. What we can hope, whoever wins next May, is that the slate is finally swept clean. The emotional cost of carrying on this foolishness long since exceeded any benefit for either side.

Do our politicians and school leaders understand this? Everyone else does.

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