Patti Bacchus: Vancouver School Board under fire for new speakers rules

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      One of the highlights of my years as a school trustee was updating the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) policy in order to provide better and clearer protections and supports for trans students and employees.

      That 2014 decision paved the way for stronger SOGI policies across all B.C. school districts and sent a powerful message that Vancouver public schools are welcoming, safe, and supportive places for all students, families, and employees.

      We made the changes in response to advice from the now-defunct VSB Pride Advisory Committee (the government-appointed trustee, who replaced the board I was on in 2016, disbanded the committee). Committee members had told us schools’ support and protections for trans students were inconsistent and that board policy and regulations needed to be specific, clear, and supported.

      It seemed simple enough. The VSB has professional staff and a series of advisory and standing committees designed to process policy work and inform trustees in their decision-making. Despite some bizarre backlash to the proposed changes, which clarified, codified, updated, and renamed a 10-year-old “anti-homophobia” policy, we forged ahead and heard from dozens of speakers over several evenings, both for and against the policy revisions.

      How many? I forget the number, but I recall we had to add extra standing-committee meetings to accommodate the speakers, and those meetings lasted for hours. We’d think we were nearing the end of the list and then more people would ask to speak. I stocked up on dark chocolate to share with my colleagues as we sat through several evenings of speakers and listened carefully and respectfully, and we learned a lot.

      The lengthy public process sparked some refinements to the proposed changes, and we welcomed the many experts who shared research and expertise on the topic, and the personal stories from speakers. It also helped us understand the (unfounded and often misinformed) fears some had about the changes.

      It was an exercise in democracy and public engagement that was at times uncomfortable and exhausting—and unfortunate in that sometimes it veered toward attempts to debate human rights (which were not up for debate and never should be). But it was what one signs up for when they run for a seat in local government. Also, it worked.

      The VSB changed its committee meeting rules to limit speakers

      I was proud of that process, as long as it was and as uncomfortable as it sometimes was for those on both sides of the table. I know that a few senior VSB managers wished we’d wrap things up more quickly and limit total time allowed for speakers. Some probably would have preferred we farm out the engagement process to a contractor who could come back with a tidy and concise report for the trustees.

      Martin Dunphy

      I insisted, however, on hearing from everyone who wanted to speak on the matter before we voted. People didn’t always agree with how we voted when I chaired the VSB, but they knew we’d heard them and considered what they had to say.

      The current VSB—which talks a lot about equity, access, and transparency—has made a process like that one impossible. It has put tight limits on who can speak at its committee meetings and for how long (five minutes, maximum, and no more than 45 minutes for all speakers combined), and committee chairs have broader powers to decline speaking requests.

      They made that change last October in response to a motion from NPA trustees Carmen Cho (who has since been elected board chair) and Oliver Hanson, who cited a desire to ensure that VSB standing committees “function in an efficient and structured way”.

      VSB trustee and board chair Carmen Cho

      When I hear the words efficient and structured, I think of tactics used to uphold systemically racist systems and protect the power of the privileged, who get to make the rules that work for them and keep their meetings running smoothly and on time.

      It so happens that Cho and Hansen’s proposed changes—which were presented as a notice of motion that would normally be referred to a committee for discussion and public and stakeholder input—were put to a vote the very night they were introduced, denying the public or stakeholder representatives a chance to weigh in on significant changes that altered decades of VSB practice. Just like that.

      VSB trustee Oliver Hanson

      Why the rush? What was the problem that Cho and Hanson were trying to solve? Is it a coincidence the motion came shortly after committee meetings where speakers took the trustees to task for the district’s inadequate response to racist school incidents or the need to suspend the school-liaison (police)-officer program (SLO) pending a review?

      I don’t think it was, and I’m not alone. The Cho/Hanson motion came on the heels of a handful of meetings in which members or the public and representatives from groups like the B.C. Community Alliance, which works to “combat the structural inequities created by anti-black racism,” had spoken at VSB committee meetings.

      Cho told me by phone this week (which took a day and a few emails to arrange because unlike all her predecessors in the chair, Cho won’t list a phone number on the VSB website and has staff respond to interview requests and screen the questions) that the intent of the motion to reduce speaker time was to “advance the work of the committees while also hearing from delegations” and prevent meetings from running long.

      In my days on Cho’s side of the table, hearing from delegations (speakers) was one of the most important aspects of the committees’ work and well worth the time it took to hear them. In eight years on the board, I saw no need to limit or restrict speakers at committee meetings. Why would I?

      The government-appointed VSB trustee, Dianne Turner, also dismantled the district’s long-standing antiracism committee in 2016 and approved a budget (for which we were fired for refusing to pass) that cut the district’s anti-racism teacher mentor position. The VSB is now dealing with the predictable results and trying to rebuild years of work that were so thoughtlessly destroyed. It seems the majority of current trustees are tired of hearing about it from some people, unfortunately.

      The SLO program review

      Things heated up last spring with the North America-wide call to get police out of schools and end the VSB’s SLO program. Several speakers—including students, the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC), and the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association—were quick to support those calls, along with a petition with thousands of signatures and speakers at VSB committee meetings.

      In response, the VSB voted last June to conduct a review of the SLO program but defeated another motion to suspend it pending the review. Instead of engaging directly with students, employee groups, parents, and the public, as we did with the SOGI policy updates, the VSB contracted out the consultation portion of the review to a large public-relations firm, Argyle PR, that appears to have a predominantly white leadership team.

      Using a contractor to conduct public engagement can be effective, but on an issue like this, which is fairly straightforward, it’s neither necessary nor wise and risks making what should be a transparent process into one that’s opaque and subject to gatekeeping. The VSB has added communications and management staff in recent years who could easily create feedback channels and use the existing standing-committee structure, along with student-led forums, to inform board decisions about the program’s future.

      Adding insult to injury, people asking to speak at VSB committee meetings about the SLO review, or anything else, now have to navigate a Kafkaesque gauntlet to do so, which flies in the face of good governance practice and appears to be intentionally designed to stifle voices from whom the board is weary of hearing.

      Ruby Smith-Diaz had this to say on Facebook, in response to the process: “I am shocked and saddened to find out that less than two weeks after I spoke, the VSB changed its policy to slash speakers' time in half, and to limit what topics speakers could address in the public sphere. As a member of the Black community and more specifically, Afro-Latinx community, I am absolutely outraged at the VSB's censoring of community voices, and outraged now to have to have gone through an incredibly convoluted process to take part in the SLO review.”

      Smith-Diaz’s post echoes what I’ve seen and heard from several other parents, students, and community members who believe that the VSB is deliberately erecting barriers to people—in particular, Black and Indigenous people—wanting to speak at committee meetings, particularly when it comes to racism and the school-liaison-officer program.

      Van Tech secondary parent Kyla Epstein worked her way through that gauntlet and spoke at last week’s VSB policy and governance meeting. She also criticized the changes, which include screening speakers and demanding to know what they’ll be saying, and sometimes declining speaking requests. “I have grave concerns about VSB trustees turning down members of the public to whom you are accountable and who want to provide comment on agenda items,” Epstein told the committee, in no uncertain terms.

      “As a public body, I expect more of this school board,” Epstein added, noting she’d initially asked to be on the agenda to speak about the SLO review but was referred to Argyle PR instead and told she couldn’t speak to the committee. She amended her request, resubmitted it, and was ultimately permitted to speak.

      As Epstein reminded the board, the “structures within which they govern were created by and for people with privilege”. That’s why they need to be listening to voices they may not want to hear from, and make it easier, not more difficult, for those voices to reach them.

      As I wrote before, the VSB is taking its time in deciding the future of the SLO program and trying to keep the process at arm’s length. Those who want to have input are referred to the PR firm, which makes some people uncomfortable and left wondering why they can’t speak to the trustees directly.

      Next steps

      Argyle Public Relations, the firm contracted to conduct the VSB’s public-engagement process, is due to report its findings to the board at its March 3 policy-and-governance-committee meeting.

      The board will hold a special “committee of the whole” meeting on March 8 to allow the public to finally speak to the board directly regarding the SLO program. It appears there won’t be a decision about the program’s future until April, at the earliest.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.