Vancouver board of education chair Patti Bacchus, who’s facing the unpleasant possibility of having to close down schools, looks back ruefully at the days when Christy Clark was minister of education.
It was the early years of the new millennium and Bacchus was a nonactivist mom with two kids attending Queen Mary elementary school.
Clark, who may yet join the race for the leadership of the B.C. Liberal party, was the cabinet minister in charge of the education portfolio. The government had decided not to fund salary increases for teachers for the academic years 2002–03 and 2003–04, leaving the province’s school boards with no choice but to absorb the cost and cut services.
“That was probably the biggest year of funding shortfall that I know of that Vancouver had,” Bacchus told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
According to figures from the Vancouver school board, the district had a budget shortfall of $25.5 million for school year 2002–03, the largest deficit so far in almost a decade.
“I remember it was really our principal telling our PAC [parent advisory council] how it would affect our school,” the first-term Vision Vancouver school trustee related. “So it was going to be reductions in learning-assistance time, special-education support, library time, supervision-aide time. We were quite shocked that anyone would do that.”
Some parents suggested increasing fundraising activities. But Bacchus said she felt there was a bigger problem than the group could address through fundraising. She recalled that the Save Our Schools movement was born out of these events, and it was through its activities that she began to get involved in wider social issues.
“I never had planned to get involved in politics,” she said. “But I was so outraged at what they were doing to the schools. That was the beginning.”
SOS members eventually collected the signatures of about 14,000 people on a petition calling for full provincial funding of the cost of public education. Some parents took these signatures to Clark’s office, but the education minister refused to meet them. She dismissed them, according to Bacchus, as puppets of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.
“It was absurd because it was really a wide cross section of people, probably people who would have been Liberal supporters or NPA [Non-Partisan Association] supporters,” Bacchus said. “This was about what was right for kids; it wasn’t an ideological issue. It was just people saying, ”˜This is not the direction we need to be going.’ ”
Clark’s website offers a different version of the former education minister’s record. “As Education Minister, Christy brought major changes to the school system, focusing on improved accountability and outcomes,” the account reads. “She increased parental involvement, led the effort to end junk food sales in schools and introduced a fellowship to recognize excellence in teaching.”
Clark, who is on a one-week leave from her job as a talk-show host on CKNW, did not respond to an interview request by deadline.
Asked for her views on Clark possibly aspiring to lead the ruling provincial party, Bacchus said, “There’s no question that her tenure as education minister was marked by a lot of conflict, a very combative approach, a pretty aggressive approach to the teachers’ union. I so strongly believe that our students are best served when we can try to work together. We need to be supporting the people who teach and work with our students.”
Clark served as education minister until 2004. “I would hope that if Christy Clark is successful, that she has maybe gained some of that wisdom over the time since she was in office,” Bacchus added.
On Friday (December 3), school-district staff will release their recommendations on the fate of five schools. These are the Carleton, Macdonald, and Queen Alexandra elementary schools, and the McBride and Champlain Heights annexes.
The staff report will be presented to two committees of the school board on December 7. According to long-time school-board member Ken Denike of the Non-Partisan Association, he and other trustees will have the final say on closures when they meet on December 14.
Jane Bouey, a trustee who represents the Coalition of Progressive Electors, noted that none of the declared candidates for B.C. Liberal leader as of November 30—Moira Stilwell, George Abbott, and Kevin Falcon—have made any promises to increase funding for K-12 schools.