Patti Bacchus: Listen to the kids, VSB—they’re all right

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      A group of children and youth who meet monthly to talk about making Vancouver better for young people recently sent an important message to the Vancouver school board (VSB). You would have missed it if you’d been at Monday’s public VSB meeting, however, which is really unfortunate.

      The message was they want the VSB to continue “its longstanding advocacy to support students”, but VSB chair Janet Fraser chose not read the written submission aloud at the public meeting, saying trustees could just read it themselves in the meeting’s agenda package.

      That’s unfortunate because it’s from a group that puts a lot of thoughtful deliberations into statements that are well worth listening to and deserve the board’s full attention.

      The message came in the form of resolutions from the City of Vancouver’s children, youth, and families advisory committee, which comprises youth representatives who volunteer their time to provide advice and feedback to city council. They also give a seat at their table to a VSB trustee liaison, and I was honoured to have that role for the past three years, although after the former government fired us last year, I was called a “special representative”.

      It’s an impressive committee that takes its work seriously. Most of its members are present or former VSB students. School board issues crop up frequently in its discussions and the youth members have good advice on how to improve the lot of VSB students. They supported the fired board for standing up for students and for consistently advocating for funding from the provincial government. They opposed school closures and the sale of VSB-owned lands.

      They’re an astute bunch and I doubt they missed the subtext of the B.C. Liberal government–commissioned “audits” and “investigations” of the VSB, which concluded trustees should stop “advocating” so much and stick to “governance”. They’re wise enough to know that good governance means meaningful engagement of communities—including children and youth. And that good governance means making sure the school district has the necessary funds to ensure all students get access to the programs and services they need to thrive and succeed.

      Some of them probably noticed the government-appointed administrator, Dianne Turner, who was sent to replace the fired trustees last year, quietly spent $85,000 of this year’s VSB budget to join the B.C. School Trustees’ Association (BCSTA). Previously the elected VSB decided not to join due to the high membership fee. Turner’s rationale in the budget documents was that “shifting a good portion of advocacy to the provincial level will assist the board in focusing its efforts on educational outcomes at the local level”.

      It’s clear the former B.C. Liberal government wanted the more outspoken VSB trustees (hello!) to pipe down about inadequate funding and that Turner was doing the job she was appointed—and very well compensated—to do on behalf of the Christy Clark team.

      Her budget rationale was nonsensical, unfortunately. First, the BCSTA is hardly known for its robust and effective advocacy work. Quick: name its president and the last issue it took a high-profile, public position on. You can’t use Google.

      I rest my case.

      Second, what Turner failed to acknowledge in that dubious rationale is that boards positively affect student outcomes by advocating for the funding needed to adequately staff schools and give educators the working conditions and resources they need to deliver topnotch instruction and programs to students

      I heard firsthand from the children and youth committee members that, for example, vibrant music programs are critical for many students, including the elementary band and strings program. That’s the one the elected board refused to cut in order to balance an underfunded budget in 2016. Once the board was fired for failing to do so, Turner cast the sole vote to approve the budget that dealt a death blow to a music program loved by many, many students.

      That was poor governance and flew in the face of consistent advice from students and parents.

      In her congratulatory message to the newly elected trustees, Turner said she looked “forward to working with them to ensure that we maintain our focus on student excellence, safe schools and a respectful environment for everyone at the [VSB]”.

      The new board would be wise to ignore that not-so-subtle message to go easy on the advocacy. Listen to the kids instead.

      The children and youth committee members know it’s wrong for students to spend their days in high-risk buildings that could collapse in an earthquake and they want to elected board to say so too, and do something about it. They also know it’s wrong to close an East Side high school with over a thousand students in order to meet an arbitrary capacity utilization target set by the former government.

      The want a board that will advocate for them.

      The kids are all right. As in correct. Good governance means listening to and engaging constituents and not just rubber-stamping recommendations from bottom-line-focused managers. Good governance means thinking about the long term, and protecting the public’s assets to ensure they’re available for future generations. It means advocating for the resources needed to ensure the governed get the services and supports they need. 

      Youth advice to go to VSB committee on Wednesday (December 6)

      I checked in with Fraser the day after the VSB meeting to ask if the youth committees’ recommendations would get any consideration from the board, as I didn’t hear a motion to refer them to a committee, which would have been the usual process.

      The impression I got at Monday’s meeting was that Fraser wanted to get the matter out of the way as fast as she could. She told me Tuesday that her “recollection” was that there was informal agreement to send it to the VSB’s management coordinating standing committee, which meets next Wednesday.

      I hope trustees take the time to consider and discuss the youth committee’s wise counsel. While the new B.C. government seems more committed to public education than its predecessor, the VSB still needs to make clear, compelling, and pragmatic cases for the funding it needs to provide students with what they need in safe, well-equipped and fully staffed schools. 

      The trustees could start by re-establishing the VSB’s advocacy committee. The committee was started about 15 years ago and includes student, parent, employee group, and trustee representatives. I chaired it for several years and it’s an effective forum for strategizing about building public support for public schools and making the case to government for the funding the district needs. The committee ceased meeting around the time of the board’s firing and it’s time to get it going again.

      I’ll give the final word to Aaron Leung, the 2015 Killarney secondary graduate who chairs the city’s youth committee. I asked him what the committee wanted from the VSB and he responded with this committee-approved statement: “We encourage the Board of Education to continue their longstanding advocacy practices as both stewards of our public education system and as advocates to improve services for all students, teachers and parents.” 

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