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School District Business Companies are a Trojan Horse

by Dianne Dunsmore, Task Force on Privatization

In days of harsh cutbacks, it may seem hard to disagree with a plan that might salvage some of the educational services that are being lost. Faced with other issues such as contract stripping, increased curriculum and more parental pressures, school district business companies, at first glance, appear relatively innocuous and unworthy of our attention. Should we be more mindful of this Trojan Horse?

So, what are the advantages claimed for these companies? School boards were given the authority to create companies in Bill 34, brought in by the B.C. Liberal Government in 2002. Creating a school district business company frees the school board to shed responsibilities set out by the School Act and proceed with no more controls than a private company.

Forming a company has the distinct advantage of protecting school districts from liability incurred through their “business.” Does this mean school districts are being encouraged to engage in risky business deals? Does it imply that they can turn a blind eye to conditions that could adversely affect the system or the clients they serve?

Accountability is supposedly maintained because the board of the business company must have at least one school board member or official on it. However, the business company can set up subsidiary companies that don’t have to have any direct connection to a board official and are an arm’s length from the elected school board.

Although the business company is not supposed to receive service or funds from the school board unless it pays the market value to the board, loopholes are wide. For example, some boards have advanced funds saying they are not from the government grants but from profits from international student programs. Unlike most business startups, the school district business company may avoid creating a business plan to get financial backing from a bank. If there is a business plan, it can be kept secret from the public, even though it is a public body that owns the business company.

These companies are not limited to K-12 education, like the boards that own them. They can offer pre-school or post-secondary education. They could contract custodial, secretarial or maintenance services. They may even usurp the intellectual property rights on teacher-developed material that is then sold on the education market, such as the ESL book that the Langley SDBC has published.

What these companies have to offer is really the high quality of education offered by B.C. teachers. Disreputable private schools catering to international students give school districts a distinct market advantage. As former education minister Cristy Clark told the legislature, the Dogwood diploma is the brand that we have to sell. Its value is based on the quality work of B.C. teachers.

While the source of value in this global marketing is the education offered by B.C. teachers, the work of those teachers is being devalued and their rights undermined. School district business companies are just one of the many ploys to erode the working conditions of teachers while apparently offering a benefit of more money for education.

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