Education Minister George Abbott (right) during a visit to Giant's Head Elementary in February. He mused last week about the possibility of amalgamating some B.C. school districts.

Education Minister George Abbott (right) during a visit to Giant's Head Elementary in February. He mused last week about the possibility of amalgamating some B.C. school districts.

Penticton teachers’ union boss shoots down amalgamation talk

Local decision-making power at risk if districts are amalgamated, an idea floated last week by B.C.'s education minister

It’s an interesting idea, but the time hasn’t come yet to amalgamate B.C.’s 60 school districts, Education Minister George Abbott told reporters last week.

In his annual back-to-school conference call, Abbott said ministry staff had done some unspecified legwork on the idea, which is seen as a potential cost-saver for the cash-strapped public school system.

“We’re beyond early, but (there is) a lot of work to be done yet,” he said

While Abbott appreciates the benefits of smaller school districts, like responsiveness to local needs, he said there are probably some whose size or location would lend themselves to amalgamation. At the very least, some could share administrators.

However, politics seem to have gotten in the way.

“At a time of tremendous challenges in labour relations and a very dynamic and positive time in renewing the education system, I wasn’t going to burn a lot of political capital on trying to push amalgamation of districts,” Abbott explained.

Okanagan Skaha School District superintendent Wendy Hyer said the issue tends to come up every now and then, “especially around election time.” However, it’s not something that has been discussed recently with her or the provincial superintendents’ association.

The head of the local teachers’ association shot down the idea outright.

“It doesn’t end up saving money at all,” said Leslea Pryde, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union. “You still need people to work in these areas, even though they’re all amalgamated into one.”

Local autonomy is her key concern.

“If we were amalgamated with Central Okanagan, well, they do things way differently. Their needs are different than schools in Summerland, for instance, and schools in Penticton. And that has to be taken into account, too,” Pryde said.

Abbott also touched on related cost-cutting suggestions contained in a study the ministry commissioned to explore ways to trim spending and enhance services.

Deloitte, which prepared the report this summer, came up with 25 key suggestions, which ranged from districts sharing printing service to contracting out all student transportation.

Hyer said her district has already buddied up with others to save money, including buying new buses as a group and paying the school district in Kelowna to administer its small number of WorksafeBC claims.

“We’re always looking for ways of doing things cheaper,” Hyer said.

Abbott announced last week that he would not seek re-election in May. He’s expected to be shuffled out of cabinet this week.