A few people expressed frustration that this week's print edition of the Georgia Straight did not include recommendations for Vancouver school trustees.
Part of the reason was space restrictions. We wanted to give more fulsome explanations for our choices for council and park board, plus provide sufficient room for a longer editorial and a look at the suburban races.
But another challenge in recommending in school trustees is that so much of what they deal with is as a result of provincial policies.
The province determines the curriculum. The province negotiates contracts with teachers. The province provides funding for boards of education. And trustees have no power over taxing property, which leaves them searching for revenue through other means, such as by leasing school-district buildings.
It's a thankless job, and we tip our hat to anyone who wants to run for school trustee, regardless of their party stripe. This is not a job for egomaniacs, because they generally don't get a lot of credit for their work.
And they're certainly not doing it for the money. For overseeing a $560-million operating budget, 90 elementary schools, 18 secondary schools, and seven adult education centres, trustees are paid $24,048.70. Or about $2,000 a month.
They have all the responsibility for the operations of local schools, but not all of the authority, because much of the power resides in Victoria. For example, the province downloaded increases to teachers' pensions, but didn't provide funding to cover this expense.
Trustees aren't entirely powerless, of course. They can choose to fund certain programs over others, close schools, negotiate contracts with support staff, and pursue different approaches in lobbying for more resources from the province.
In addition, good trustees will hire the best administrators.
In these areas, there are some real differences between candidates running for the Vancouver board of education.
The COPE and Vision trustees have pursued a more confrontational approach in dealing with the B.C. Liberal government.
The Vision chair, Patti Bacchus, even called for the replacement of former education minister Margaret MacDiarmid. Their public spats eventually led to a financial review by then-comptroller general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland.
To deal with a school-district deficit, Wenesanki-Yolland called for a "provincial solution" to dealing with collective agreements. Political commentator David Schreck noted that in essence, the then-comptroller general wanted the government to rewrite contracts, which would have run contrary to a 2007 ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada.
One of the biggest issues facing the Vancouver board of education in its last term was whether or not to close some schools.
After a review by district officials, there was a public-consultation process on the possible shutdown of five East Vancouver elementary schools: Sir Guy Carleton, Champlain Heights Annex, Sir William Macdonald, McBride Annex, and Queen Alexandra elementary.
After a massive public outcry on the East Side, trustees voted in favour of a staff recommendation for a moratorium on school closures until 2012.
In an interview with the Straight last year, NPA trustee Ken Denike said that the provincial government has made it clear in the past that if the district wants capital funding for new schools in areas with growing populations, it must be prepared to close schools in areas with declining enrollment. "There is a rationale there," he said.
He pointed out that the student population has dropped dramatically on the northeast side of town, whereas there is more demand for schools in the southeast sector, in Yaletown, and near UBC. Denike also suggested that Vancouver might be losing students to schools in Richmond and Burnaby because of perceptions about the quality of Vancouver schools.
If you agree with Denike, who was first elected in 1984, then you might want to vote for the NPA slate. However, if you agree with those who argued that there was a paltry savings in shutting the five schools—by one estimate, $1.4 million—then you might want to vote for the COPE-Vision slate.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix told the board last year that it would be foolish to close Carleton because Wall Financial Corp. is building a huge development—more than 1,000 homes—near Boundary Road. Given the Vision council's propensity for allowing massive rezonings, it's not farfetched to think that we could see a lot more homes being built in East Vancouver in the coming years.
So where does that leave voters in the school-district election? We believe that all three COPE incumbents should be reelected. Al Blakey, Jane Bouey, and Allan Wong all know the issues extremely well, and this left flank on the board of education ensures that the interests of poor kids won't be forgotten.
The NPA's Denike deserves to be reelected, even if you disagree with his support for closing East Side schools. It's important to keep at least one trustee whose election hasn't been funded by unions.
Even Denike's opponents respect his intellect and dedication. He has also played an important provincial role as a former chair and current director of the B.C. Public Schools Employers Association. It's valuable for Vancouver to have a voice in this organization.
On the Vision side, Bacchus is definitely worth being reelected. She's demonstrated her commitment to the school system through her long hours of work on board issues. She did a good job in exposing the hypocrisy of the B.C. government's approach to educational matters.
Vision's Mike Lombardi, a former teacher, is also a hard-working trustee who's extremely knowledgeable about education issues. He deserves to be reelected.
The third Vision incumbent, Ken Clement, is the first aboriginal person to be elected to the board. His presence made it more difficult for the board to close two of the East Side schools with large aboriginal populations. But we wonder if another aboriginal education advocate, Scott Clark of a group called ALIVE, might have played an even bigger role.
A vote for Clement might ensure that the two with large aboriginal populations, Macdonald and Queen Alexandra, could stay open in the future. If you think that's desirable in the face of declining enrollment, then by all means, vote for him.
This leaves two spots left on the ballot (or three if you decide not to vote for Clement). Here's our view:
If you're concerned about school closures, save one for COPE's Gwen Giesbrecht, who's a very worthy candidate. She's been on the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council for the past five years, including two years as chair. She'll fight for the kids.
If you want someone with a great deal of management experience in the district, vote for the NPA's Fraser Ballantyne. He's a veteran of the school system and would bring some real depth to the discussions at the board of education.
The NPA's other candidates—Stacy Robertson, Sandy Sharma, and Sophia Woo—are also not lightweights. Woo has a postgraduate diploma in educational psychology and works a mental-health clinician. Sharma has been a representative of the District Parent Advisory Council on several board committees. And Robertson is a lawyer who lives in the Hastings Sunrise area, so he brings a good understanding of issues relating to the northeast sector.
Vision's Rob Wynen has been a very dedicated community activist with the West End Residents' Association. He's also one of the city's keenest cycling activists. The other Vision candidate, Cherie Payne, hasn't had as high a profile as Wynen, but she brings many strengths to the table—she's a lawyer, a former legislative assistant to Ujjal Dosanjh, and her parents immigrated from the Caribbean and never finished high school, which gives her great empathy and understanding for many immigrants in the school system who are struggling to get a diploma.
Vancouver parents are lucky to have such a wealth of choices when they fill out their ballot for school trustee tomorrow (November 17). We have a hunch that no matter who's elected, the kids will be in good hands, even if you don't always agree with the choices that the new board makes.