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Saanich school board looks overseas for cash

Jul 06 2012

The Saanich school board has decided to push ahead with plans to sell online learning courses overseas as a way to raise money and avoid further cuts to education.

Trustees voted Thursday to set up a company that would operate independently of the board and oversee the new business.

The board expects School District 63 Business Company Inc. to establish two subsidiaries - one that would sell the online distributed learning courses and another to recruit foreign students who would pay fees to attend Saanich schools.

The model is designed to shield the board from liability while returning projected profits of more than $1 million to be used by the district.

Board chairman Wayne Hunter said the district needs to find new ways to cope with falling enrolment and reduced per-pupil grants from the provincial government. The district has already closed schools and cut back on counselling, library time, maintenance and supplies, he said.

"We decided that perhaps we needed to try to generate revenue."

The district already has a stable of distributed learning courses that it sells across B.C. But it needed to set up a separate company if it wanted to sell those courses internationally.

Secretary-treasurer Monica Schulte said the complicated arrangement is necessary because the School Act no longer allows districts to loan government money to companies.

So Saanich plans to use revenue from one subsidiary - Saanich International Student Recruiting Services Inc. - to set up the second subsidiary - Saanich International Distributed Learning Service Inc. - which would sell the online courses.

"We fully expect that by starting up this other company, it will repay that money in a couple of years," Schulte said.

A business plan released in March contains preliminary projections that the company would return $1.2 million in profits to the district in 2012-13, $1.7 million in 2013-14 and $2.1 million in 2014-15.

"Those are not firm numbers," Schulte said. "That's just to provide the board with a picture of what it could look like. The work hasn't been done to analyze that yet."

Not all trustees support the plan. Jane Husband worries about the ability of a profit-driven subsidiary to properly care for foreign students.

"Companies are out to make money and I'm just very nervous," she said. "I also believe that public education should be funded by the government and we shouldn't be in the business of being in business."

The main company would operate at arm's-length from the district. School board trustees and district employees would hold a minority of seats on the company's board of directors.

The school board, however, would retain ultimate oversight and the power to change or remove directors at any time through a resolution.

The company and its subsidiaries also would be subject to a mandatory public reporting process, Schulte said.

"Our board will know exactly what's going on and this is all going to be public information," she said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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