Mum’s the word from Rouble on damning Education audit

A scathing report on Yukon's Education Department released last week by Auditor General Sheila Fraser has nearly everyone talking, from parents and teachers to aboriginal leaders and opposition critics. The notable exception...

A scathing report on Yukon’s Education Department released last week by auditor general Sheila Fraser has nearly everyone talking, from parents and teachers to aboriginal leaders and opposition critics.

The notable exception is Education Minister Patrick Rouble, who declines to speak on the subject.

“That, in itself, says a lot,” said Liberal education critic Eric Fairclough, who is calling for Rouble’s resignation.

Department officials will take the hot seat on Friday at the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions about the report. But Rouble won’t speak there, either.

He’s excused himself because, as both a committee member and cabinet minister, he would be in a conflict of interest.

One of the report’s more damning findings is that the department has been “misleading” the public about the territory’s graduation rate by excluding from its calculations all students who dropped out before reaching Grade 12.

This inflated the graduation rate. The department’s last annual report put the graduation rate at 89 per cent, which is almost 20 percentage points above the real rate of 70.7 per cent.

Michele Royle, a department spokesperson, could not name the other jurisdictions that calculated graduation rates using the Yukon’s method.

But the department’s last annual report did acknowledge Statistics Canada produces graduation rates differently than the Yukon government, and, for the first time, it included both rates.

The five-year graduation average, included in Fraser’s report, is even worse — 63 per cent.

The department has also claimed it didn’t have enough information to produce a graduation rate for aboriginal students. This is false.

Only 40 per cent of Yukon aboriginals graduate, according to numbers Fraser found in the department’s records.

The graduation rate for other Yukon students is just above 65 per cent.

The Yukon’s graduation rates are the third-worst in Canada. The territory ranks below every province and only scored higher than the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Meanwhile, the Yukon spends far more per student than any other jurisdiction in Canada. It spent $18,500 per student in 2005-06, according to Statistics Canada. The national average is less than $10,000 per student.

However, spending on education has not kept pace with inflation in recent years. The budget for public schools rose only one percentage point for 2008-09 to $81.16 million. This amounts to a 2.6 per cent cut in funding when adjusted for inflation.

Fraser found the department lacked comprehensive plans for almost everything, from staffing levels and enrolment trends to facility upgrades.

It’s great the report gives hard numbers on graduation rates and identifies the disturbing absentee rates, said Jim Tredger, president of the Yukon Teachers Association.

The average number of days a student misses has climbed over five years to 21 days from 16.

But he fears Fraser’s calls for more planning may cause bureaucracy to balloon, leaving less money for schools.

He also says he hopes the territory doesn’t meddle with it’s student-educator ratio, which is presently the lowest in the country. The number of teachers continues to grow even as student enrolment declines.

That’s a good thing, said Tredger. It means students get more one-on-one time with teachers.

But it’s not the result of any deliberate policy, said Fraser. Staffing levels just appear to be aimlessly drifting upwards.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as school bison hunts are helping to close the gap between aboriginals and other students, he said.

Fault for the low graduation rate can’t fall solely on educators, said Tredger. Parents, teachers and other community members all play a role in putting students through school.
“It’s partnership,” he said.

That’s nonsense, said Chief Ed Taylor of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation.

“Excuses from our Yukon education system will not educate our children,” he said.

He found few surprises in Fraser’s report.
“It basically reiterated what we’ve been saying for years,” he said.

There’s been plenty of talk about having First Nations more involved in the operation of schools, but little action, said Taylor.

Yukon’s Education Reform Project called for closer ties between First Nations and schools, but there’s little evidence the report’s recommendations are being followed, said the Liberals’ Fairclough.

There have been lots of public meetings, but they only seem to produce more meetings, he said.

The report is “damning” proof the territory isn’t preparing its youth to become skilled workers, said the NDP’s Steve Cardiff.

“What message will Rouble have for kids who don’t graduate this year?” he asked. “Those are the kids who will really need help.”

Blame aside, the territory faces some tough decisions in how to manage its schools, said Eric Blake, chair of Whitehorse Elementary School council. He doesn’t envy department officials.

Many schools are underused. Fraser’s report found nearly as many empty seats in Whitehorse schools as students. Many rural schools are also under capacity.

But closing schools is never popular. And Yukon’s diverse population makes school closures in many cases unfeasible.

Fraser also points out little work has been done to assess how safe Yukon’s schools would be in the event of an earthquake, even though the territory is prone to seismic activity.

“I hope the department acts and takes the report as homework to work on,” said Blake. “Let’s hope they do that.”

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