Patti Bacchus: Are school trustees’ free trips too expensive?

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      Is free too expensive when it comes to elected officials accepting all-expense-paid trips from foreign governments?

      For Coquitlam school trustees, there’s not just a free lunch—there’s also free airfare and accommodation, along with breakfast and dinners. It all comes courtesy of  the Chinese government via an organization called “Hanban”, which falls under the Chinese ministry of education.

      For the past several years, groups of trustees, senior school district managers, school administrators, and teachers from B.C. school district No. 43—which includes schools in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and the Anmore/Belcarra area—have been taking spring break trips to China, and the trustees’ costs are covered by the Chinese government.

      They aren’t breaking any rules, necessarily, because there really aren’t any to break. The same goes for the free trips some B.C. public school superintendents take, courtesy of corporately funded organizations like the Education Research Development and Innovation (ERDI) and Canadians for 21st Century Learning & Innovation. The corporations that fund these organizations are primarily from the educational technology sector and sell products to school boards, raising the potential for a conflict of interest.

      Critical thinking required

      With so much focus on critical thinking in B.C.’s new curriculum, you’d be forgiven for expecting elected school trustees to ask tough questions about why the Chinese government is so keen to fly them across the world every year on all-expense-paid junkets.

      You’d be forgiven for assuming that critical thinking means you’d ask “why” when someone offers you and your colleague trips worth thousands of dollars. You’d be forgiven for expecting people elected and paid to represent their constituents to know that there aren’t actually free lunches, or international flights, hotel accommodations, and other meals and hospitality.

      The Coquitlam school board’s trustee code of conduct says “board members will declare any conflict of interest. A trustee will not participate in, vote on, or exert influence on, any decision in which the trustee has any interest.” When I spoke to board chair Kerri Palmer this week, she didn’t think there was an issue with accepting trips worth about $8,000 each.

      She said she’s taken “a couple” of the Hanban-funded trips along with delegations from the district and that they were “very positive experiences and a wonderful opportunity”. When asked if she had any concerns about accepting the Hanban funding, she said she didn’t.

      Should she?

      National controversy of politicians' “free” trips

      At the national level, the Senate Ethics Office is investigating all-expense-paid-junkets three Conservative senators and their spouses took to China, following recent media coverage and commentary about the trips and their implications.

      Chinese government–funded junkets are generally intended to influence Canadian elected officials and help shape international perceptions of a country ruled by an oppressive, authoritarian government with an appalling human rights record that seeks to exert larger global influence.

      What’s the big deal?

      Does it really matter if some suburban school officials spend a few spring breaks in China, enjoying one of the few perks that come from serving at one of the lowest levels of Canada’s political food chain?

      It’s not the most pressing issue in our education system, but yes, it does matter.

      Ethical standards for elected officials

      Elected officials should be held to a high ethical standard and school trustees should be setting an example by applying the rigours of critical thought to decisions they make. In a spin-filled world where corporations, organizations, political parties, and governments employ all kinds of strategies to influence public opinion, school boards should be teaching and modelling a critical approach that strengthens democracy and students’ ability to make independent judgements that resist influence from those who seek to strive their opinions for financial or political gain.

      I’m not suggesting the Coquitlam trustees who’ve been travelling to China on Hanban’s tab are now indebted to China and that it will influence their decision making, but the optics are poor, at the very least.

      Controversial Confucious Institutes

      Coquitlam is, as far as I know, the only B.C. school district to operate a Chinese government-sponsored “Confucious Institute” that offers after-school language and cultural education. Those institutes have been controversial in other school districts and universities, so much so that the Toronto District School Board scrapped plans for its own Confucious Institute in 2014, after public backlash to the programs.

      The Confucious Institute program has been criticized for being a Chinese government propaganda tool used to exert “soft power” and influence international perception of China.

      When the Vancouver school board voted to offer an early Mandarin bilingual program several years ago, we struggled with how to fund the start-up costs of buying Mandarin books and other learning resources. We knew funding could be available if we went the Confucious Institute route, but our management staff advised against it. There might be funding available they told us, but that money could come at a cost. We agreed and forged ahead, scraping together what we could from our overstretched budget, deciding that for us “free” money would be too expensive.

      Coquitlam’s superintendent of schools, Patricia Gartland, says the funding her district gets through Hanban grants can also be also used to buy resources for teaching Mandarin and Chinese cultural activities, including a Mandarin public speaking even the district hosts.

      She said there are benefits to having the trustees travel to China as they promote the district’s international education program, which brings about 2000 fee-paying students to Coquitlam each year. Gartland says she’s been to China every year since they started the Coquitlam Confucious Institute but that her costs are covered by the school district’s international education department.

      Why it can be—or appear to be—a problem

      School trustees’ jobs are setting district policies, priorities, and goals and allocating the district’s budgets and resources. Decisions facing trustees can include how many fee-paying international students to accept in their districts, how much to charge them, and how much should be spent trying to recruit them and support them once they’re here.

      The job also includes deciding whether to continue operating a controversial program like the Confucious Institute or to focus on other areas. Are trustees swayed one way or another by knowing that ending the Confucious partnership could put an end to their all-expense-paid trips? I don’t know.

      I can see many benefits of trustees and school district staff travelling to China and other countries, although I never did it myself as a trustee. It’s whether there’s a quid pro quo component, overt or unspoken.

      I’d feel the same about a group of school officials heading off on a corporately funded junket to tour Apple headquarters to learn about their educational tools. To me it’s about avoiding the perception of a conflict of interest that can have a corrosive effect on the integrity of the democratic process.

      We need our elected officials—whether they’re sitting in the House of Commons, the Senate or around a school board table—to be working solely for the people they’re elected to represent without feeling or appearing in any way beholden to a foreign government or corporation.

      More transparency needed, at minimum

      While I wouldn’t accept a free trip from a foreign government if I was holding public office, I’m not calling for an all-out ban.

      But at the very least, we need rules in place to ensure full and transparent public disclosure of what is being accepted, who is paying for it, exactly what is being given, and why the decision was made to accept it. To the Coquitlam trustees’ credit, they declare their Hanban-paid trips in their annual statement of financial information reports that are posted publicly and submitted annually to the provincial government. It’s a good start but they should go further.

      Provincial rules required

      The B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) urged the previous B.C. Liberal government to bring in conflict of interest and disclosure rules for top school officials, to no avail. That government left it up to individual school boards to set their own rules to follow—or not. The new government doesn’t sound like it’s planning any changes, telling me this week that trustees are accountable to electors for their conduct, that education minister Rob Fleming expects school districts to ensure their policies are up to date and adhered to, and that trustees uphold ethical standards in their practices, both locally and abroad.

      Leaving it to school boards to set rules for themselves isn’t enough. It’s just not a priority issue for school boards that have enough on their plates as it is and there’s no motivation to call for more rules for themselves or the senior staff who advise them. It won’t happen.

      B.C. School Trustees’ Association president Gordon Swan told me by phone this week that he can’t recall any school boards bringing motions to the provincial body calling for consistent rules or guidelines regarding conflict of interest for trustees of district staff. That doesn’t surprise me; why would they?

      Swan says transparency is important for school boards and that the public needs to know if their trustees or district staff are going on trips and why.

      Fleming should to bring in clear conflict rules and disclosure requirements for school trustees and district administrators who accept any benefits with a financial value from outside organizations, businesses, corporations or foreign governments. The rules should require full, transparent, public and timely disclosure of any gifts, fees, meals, services (including airfare and hotel accommodation), their value, and the reason they were accepted.

      The benefits would be twofold: the public would know who is giving what to their elected officials and elected officials would pause to think about what was being offered to them and by whom (and question why it’s being offered), and how they can explain it to the public.

      In the meantime, my advice to trustees is to look every gift horse in the mouth carefully and question why gift bearers or those offering me free trips are being so generous. The way I look at it, when you’re a public official “free” can be way too expensive.

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