Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Geoff Johnson: Per-capita funding is hurting schools

Having survived the Y2K “every computer on the planet will implode” prophecy and the more recent 2012 “this will be it” doomsday divination, I’m not much for predictions of imminent catastrophe.

Having survived the Y2K “every computer on the planet will implode” prophecy and the more recent 2012 “this will be it” doomsday divination, I’m not much for predictions of imminent catastrophe.

But there’s something happening that, if nothing changes, will continue to take an essential public system over the brink: per-capita education funding.

It’s true that since 2003, operating grants to school districts, that part of their funding of which 90 per cent goes to paying teaching and non-teaching employees, have continued to increase.

In fact, since the 2003-04 school year, school-district operating funds have increased by more than $873 million. During that same period, the number of students declined by more than 36,000.

So funding increases while the student population decreases. Why?

The cynics cry “mismanagement.”

Yet between 2003-04 and 2010-11, school districts closed 83 schools, and during the same period, B.C. lost 563 teachers.

Makes sense — right? Fewer kids equals fewer schools and that equals fewer teachers.

Just simple math, say the cynics.

If only it were that simple. There is more to the story — much more.

In the real world of school districts, the loss of students equates immediately to the loss of funding, which in turn equates to fewer employees.

Let’s say a district with 30 or so K-12 schools loses 70 students — funding is reduced by about $600,000.

But unless all those students come from one or two schools where adjustments can be made, the loss of funding, year after year, incrementally cripples the system, because if each of the schools loses only two or three students, the money is gone, but all the other kids are still there waiting to be taught.

Government does a little financial tidying up here and there, but the funding system, although it is being constantly adjusted, was essentially devised at a time when enrolment was stable or even increasing. It doesn’t work when enrolment declines, as it has since 2003.

Nor does the current funding system adequately recognize other unavoidable externally imposed liabilities for which school districts are scrambling to find dollars.

Significant increases in pension-contribution requirements, increases in Medical Service Plan rates, insurance rates and bumps in the costs of everything school districts consume, from paper and pencils to fuel for buses and other vehicles, become significant unfunded liabilities.

Unlike private enterprise, which can increase prices to cover swelling overhead charges, school districts can find money in only one place — the funding generated by student enrolment.

B.C. school districts are not selling a product and cannot simply bump up the product price to cover revenue shortfalls. Unlike other forms of local government, municipal and regional, school districts cannot simply raise taxes to cover the costs of providing service or asset mismanagement.

And, dare I say it, school districts usually do a much better job of managing public money than big government: no fast ferries or HST fiascos, B.C. Hydro rate hikes, Basi-Virk buyouts or massive overruns on public projects with the losses picked up by taxpayers.

Instead, we see responsibly run, well-managed school districts, year after year facing relatively huge deficits and, unlike every other form of government, boards of education cannot, by law, run a deficit.

Something is wrong here. Crunch the numbers any way you want, but something does not add up.

Public education is a public trust. If the formulas being used to fund public education adequately don’t work when the economy itself is demanding so much more of public education — well, those formulas need to be ditched. They should be replaced with a system that recognizes both the eroding effect of per-capita funding in a time of declining enrolment and, at the same time, the fundamental value of public education.

Cynicism, as Oscar Wilde said, recognizes the cost of everything and the value of nothing.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.