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Letter: School district spending problems – the result of inadequate educational governance

Auditor General Julia Mullaley speaks to media on Wednesday morning about a special report on the Management of the Procurement of Goods and Services at the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD).
Auditor General Julia Mullaley speaks to media on Wednesday morning about a special report on the Management of the Procurement of Goods and Services at the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD). - Joe Gibbons

The past few days in Newfoundland and Labrador have seen a media outcry about the recently released Auditor General Report concerning facilities oversight in the Newfoundland Labrador English School District (NLESD).

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador eliminated local school governance and accompanying local oversight in favour of centralized top-down control from the Confederation Building. Trying to control the spending at more than 250 school sites from one central location is a daunting undertaking.

The consolidation of the four regional boards into one provincial board has placed very competent and able senior leaders in a situation wherein they are doomed to fail. This inability to be successful has nothing to do with how honest, how able, or how hard they work as much as it has to do with an impossible task of trying to run a geographically dispersed board.

The geographic dispersion allowed some of the facilities people to make inappropriate decisions by not having adequate accountability measures in place. The low numbers of people remaining to administer the entire province did not have the human resources needed to provide proper fiscal oversight. In many instances people are promoted to positions for which they have not been adequately trained and the result is not being able to manage actions for which they are held accountable. The move to save money has come at a cost of not having adequate administrative control to guide those in the far-flung system.

Related story:

Auditor General report outlines school board spending 'fraud'

The government through its appointed school board (it took some years before a province-wide election was conducted) rapidly took moves to sell off regional properties so that any subsequent government would have difficulty bringing back a democratic local or regional governance structure. One example from my local area saw the government appointed NLESD sell off its regional offices that housed the best professional development centre in the province for $225,000 to the Town of Spaniards Bay. A predecessor board had spent $1,000,000 developing a fully resourced professional development centre in that building. It was a state-of-the-art professional development centre that was used very effectively for teacher, support staff, and trustee professional development activities. After its closure, regional professionals were shuffled out to nearby schools wherein they had no private space to conduct their activities many of which by their nature had to be confidential. The several ocean front acres on which the regional offices were located were likely worth more than the property realized to the board's coffers. That financial decision makes the $725 wheelbarrow pale to insignificance.

The policy decision to eliminate school boards under the pretense that it would save millions on administrative costs made by the previous Conservative government and continued by the present Liberal government is what is the main problem here.

The administrative budget is now approximately the same with the one provincial board as it had been with the four predecessor boards — thus no savings. It is hypocritical in my opinion to place the blame at the feet of a group of hardworking educators who are trying to provide the high quality of education that we have been accustomed to here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Our student achievement indicators have historically shown us to be near the bottom of Canadian provinces but citizens ought to know that we are and have been historically one of the best systems of education in the world — Canada has arguably the best public education in the world. We are not only very efficient as can be seen by OECD reports and Pan-Canadian assessments but our educational system is also very equitable. Recent OECD studies show that we have one of the world’s highest achieving and most equitable public school systems. I argue that in Newfoundland and Labrador that the competent, dedicated, and high quality teachers and administrators are responsible for our high levels of student achievement.  

The move to eliminate regional and local school boards to “realize efficiencies” by the provincial government was so short sighted as to match Donald Trump kind of thinking and analysis of how well he did in Puerto Rico.

Things are not always best controlled from Confederation Building.

Noel Hurley

St. John’s

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