Backroom Bureaucracy Won't Stop Corruption

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About six months ago, the Windsor Street Sobey’s in Halifax called to say I had won the latest Club Sobey’s contest.

That I had even entered was news to me. Apparently shoppers automatically join the fray by proffering their frequent shopper discount card.

“What did I win?”

“A little red wagon.”

When I presented myself at the courtesy booth a few days later, a Sobey’s employee disappeared into the back of the store and emerged a few minutes later wheeling a bright shiny Radio Flyer, complete with removable hardwood sideboards.

It’s a beauty, but my youngest child is 27-years-old, and I’m not a grandfather. Yet.

Valerie will know some deserving kid whose parents couldn’t afford one of these, I thought to myself.

Valerie Patterson teaches the combined primary/grade one class at Boularderie School in Cape Breton. When I called to ask who among her charges coulduse a little red wagon, she surprised me.

“I’ll raffle it off,” she said.

“Raffle it off?” I said.“What will you do with the money?”

“I’ll buy modeling clay. It helps develop their fine motor skills.”

The Boularderie School is a magnificent edifice, recently (and imprudently, in my view) rebuilt at a cost exceeding $5-million. It boasts spacious, well-lit classrooms, a music room, an art room, the latest computers, a library, electronic screens that drop from the ceiling and a combined gymnasium-auditorium with the best acoustics this side of Mabou, Cape Breton’s Strathspey Place.

Yet its teachers can’t get modeling clay (or construction paper, or coloured chalk, or library books) without spending their nights and weekends cadging for cash.

This is the fiscal standard against which salaries and perks for senior school board managers must be judged. It explains why news of superintendent Jack Sullivan’s $48,470 annual mileage allowance touched such a raw nerve in communities from Capstick to Comeauville.

The 1995 amalgamation that cobbled twenty-two local Cape Breton school boards into just seven regional units, left responsible officials remote from the schools, communities, and families they were appointed to serve.

It was next to impossible for parents or teachers to get them on the phone, let alone pry bucks for art supplies or library purchases out of them.

To the extent anyone has tried to defend the salaries we pay senior education bureaucrats, they have relied on surveys of similar sized boards in other provinces.

Since Nova Scotia schoolteachers, coalminers, store clerks, X-ray technologists, and brain surgeons have never made as much as their Ontario or Alberta counterparts, it’s hard to argue that superintendents and chief financial officers should.

That such officials would bypass already generous salary guidelines with such subterfuge as phony car allowances and continuing education funds amounts to a betrayal of trust.

The Strait Regional School Board paid huge sums of money in this manner, while elected board members and provincial bureaucrats averted their gaze.

The scandal is further complicated by the favoured bureaucrats’ intricate connections to the failed Knowledge House, a multi-million dollar technology supplier to the board.

The province has since called in forensic auditors and the board called the cops. So far, so good.

But what’s needed to prevent such abuses from flowering again the next time the public’s backs are turned?

Education Minister Jane Purves seems to be toying with the notion that all future problems can be solved by putting board finances under the direct control of the province.

Or perhaps by imposing yet another restructuring of school governance.

These are bad ideas.

The myth that great efficiencies can be achieved by monkeying with the number and size of bureaucratic units — whether in education, healthcare or municipal government — has cast its seductive spell on both the last Liberal administration and the present Conservative crew.

The result has been tremendous turmoil, calamitous transitional costs, and little evidence of long-term savings.

Whether we should have seven boards or twenty-two, or one or none is an interesting academic debate, but the solid fact is we can’t afford the disruption of yet another restructuring.

Nor are provincial bureaucrats inherently less corruptible than local yokels.

What’s needed to insure against future corruption is more openness.

If elected board members had been required to ratify Sullivan’s contract in an open meeting, it would never have happened. Instead, the board would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars it could have spent on modeling clay and other necessities of day-to-day learning.

If Purves wants meaningful reform, she should pass legislation requiring school boards to conduct their business in public.

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