Editorial: The low fruit is already picked

School trustees have every right to be angered by Premier Christy Clark’s comment that the budget cuts her government has ordered can be achieved by picking “low-hanging fruit.”

It’s one thing to keep pushing for more efficiencies and frugality; it’s quite another to imply that school districts, which have been struggling with tight budgets for years, have overlooked easy and obvious savings.

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That’s what “low-hanging fruit” means, those things that are within easy reach and require the least effort. It’s an expression described by one business magazine writer as “the uncouth phrase of mid-level managers and meddling consultants.”

The premier told reporters Wednesday that taxpayers want to see greater efficiency from school boards. Perhaps, but taxpayers want efficiency from all levels of government. They want to see their tax dollars used properly and not wasted.

But they also want good services; they want a sound education for their children. Most, despite concerns over government waste, know that schools, teachers and administrators can’t be had for nothing.

While we’re bandying words about, let’s examine “efficiency.” A car going down the highway while achieving a fuel consumption of 70 miles a gallon is efficient. But if it’s going the wrong direction, it’s not effective. School districts can become more “efficient” by simply lopping staff and services, but effectiveness will diminish accordingly.

Clark seems to hint that school-district offices are hiding laggards and goldbrickers, noting that “there is no reason that in the back office — the part that has nothing to do with delivering educational programs on a local level — there’s no reason we can’t find savings there.”

If school districts are employing people or operating programs that have nothing to do with education, we want to know about it. If the premier knows of such cases, she should be specific, rather than making vague allusions.

Perhaps the Ministry of Education should do a detailed study of school-district operations to determine best practices, to see where savings could be achieved. Then Clark could say: “We want you to rein in costs, and we have figured out how you can do it and we will help you.” That would be better than the top-down approach, which appears to be: “We want you to cut costs and we don’t care how you do it.”

The premier suggests school districts do such things as share services to save money, another “low-hanging fruit” sort of a suggestion. Teresa Rezansoff, president of the B.C. School Trustees’ Association, says that is already happening. Districts already work closely together, she said, to save money on such things as MSP premiums, higher electricity bills and salary increases. Some districts share secretary-treasurers, she said, and others join forces to buy goods and services.

“It’s inaccurate to say that we haven’t already been doing this stuff and it doesn’t reflect the reality in school districts,” Rezansoff said.

One way to save costs would be to amalgamate some school districts. That’s nothing new — in 1945, hundreds of the province’s districts were consolidated into 77; more mergers in 1996 left us with 60. Yet Clark is loath to go that route “because local school boards listen to local communities and reflect those local priorities.”

They might listen to local concerns, but there’s little they can do — the premier and her predecessors have so narrowed the mandates of school districts that they have little meaningful power left. They have no role in negotiations with teachers, no say on property taxes and little impact on curriculum design.

The province holds all the real power. It should use that power to help school districts reach higher. The low-hanging fruit was picked a long time ago.

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