The Vancouver School Board (VSB) made international headlines this week over a holiday-decoration dispute after its top leaders’ fumbled response made matters worse, not better.
It’s a shame, because the last time the VSB made international news was in 2014 when I was interviewed on the BBC and the Al Jazeera news networks about the VSB’s ground-breaking, progressive, and inclusive sexual-orientation and gender-identity policy. This time, unfortunately, it was for allowing Christmas trees and wreaths in an elementary school while refusing to let two 11-year-olds bring in menorahs or other Hanukkah decorations.
I was stunned by such a blatant violation of the VSB policy, which states that the board “is committed to developing and supporting an environment that affirms, respects, reflects, and celebrates the racial, ethno-cultural, and religious diversity of our society”.
As a former VSB chair and spokesperson, I expected a swift public response apologizing for the mistake, including a commitment to enforce board policy, an assurance that it wouldn’t happen again, and praise and thanks for the two students who spoke out on the issue.
Grade 6 students deserve an A for leadership; VSB gets a fail
Those students—Maya Sontz and Rebecca Weinberg—both deserve an A for leadership, while the VSB administrators and board get a failing grade for a response that seemed to make the offense worse, not better, for several distressing days.
In case you haven’t been following the saga of how General Gordon elementary on Vancouver’s West Side became an international news story for all the wrong reasons, here’s what played out last week.
The school was decorated with Christmas trees, wreaths, and other Christmas-themed decorations. A winter concert was scheduled, featuring holiday songs about Santa and a reindeer named Rudolph. Maya and Rebecca asked if they could bring in some Hanukkah-themed decorations, and Maya’s mom asked the school principal to include some Hanukkah songs during the school concert, which was to take place during Hanukkah.
The principal said “No.”
“I would really like to feel represented”
I got wind of this via a CTV news report in which Rebecca said, "I have nothing against Christmas. I just think they should add more Hanukkah and other religions. I would really like to feel represented."
The ridiculous rationale for turning down the girls’ perfectly reasonable request, according to news coverage, was that the principal declared Christmas trees and other Christmas-themed decorations and songs to be cultural, while Hanukkah-themed decorations and songs were religious, and thus not allowed under the VSB policy.
I know. Bizarre and, quite frankly, ignorant and shocking.
People make some really bad judgement calls. Even school principals. I get that. That’s when someone up the school board food chain steps in and shows leadership and deals with it promptly and properly. Except this time, they didn’t.
Instead of the board chair, Janet Fraser, stepping in immediately with the response I outlined above, which is what I would’ve done, she sent VSB associate superintendent Nancy Brennan to respond to CTV. Associate superintendents are senior managers who are well paid to be leaders with, you know, good judgement.
Given the opportunity to apologize and assure the public that VSB policy would be upheld and the Gordon mistake would not be repeated, Brennan doubled down on the principal’s decision, telling CTV: “How individual schools treat cultural and religious symbols is ultimately up to them.
"I'm no expert in terms of cultural symbols and representations, so I wouldn't want to be making those decisions at the district level for schools in terms of what's appropriate or not," Brennan—one of the district’s highest-paid senior officials—added.
Wrong. Completely wrong. It is senior managers’ job to ensure that board policies are followed at the school level. The board makes policies to ensure that it is not left up to individuals at the school level to make ignorant decisions like allowing Christmas decorations while excluding Hanukkah ones. And for the love of Christmas and/or Hanukkah, you don’t need to be an expert to know what a Christmas tree represents.
It didn’t end there, unfortunately. With public outrage growing and Facebook groups buzzing, the VSB put out a mealy-mouthed December 8 statement quoting John Lewis, the interim superintendent, who is Brennan’s boss. He didn’t do much better. Neither did board chair Janet Fraser, who chimed in and brushed the matter off as “an unfortunate misunderstanding”. Neither apologized and neither made it clear that Hanukkah and decorations would be welcome alongside the Christmas ones.
Parents and the public were unimpressed, to say the least
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) weighed in on December 9 with a widely shared and commented-on Facebook post saying: “On Thursday evening, we were troubled to learn that a Vancouver school had not allowed Hanukkah decorations and songs in neither the school nor the school's Christmas concert. We are incredibly proud of the two grade six students who voiced their objections and—when unsuccessful at the school level—took their efforts public.
“CIJA immediately contacted the Vancouver School Board and provincial government officials to clarify their positions and express our concerns. These officials confirmed that diversity and inclusion are enshrined in their policies.
“However, policies are meaningless if they are not implemented,” the CIJA statement added. “We continue to work with officials to seek a resolution. We are hopeful this can be achieved within the next few days.”
On Sunday (December 10), Fraser gave it another try and issued a wordy statement that finally got around to apologizing by the third paragraph: “The VBE sincerely regrets any practices at General Gordon Elementary that have negatively impacted a sense of inclusion and representation for students and parents within our school community. As Chairperson, I apologize on behalf of the Board to the students and their families who did not feel welcomed and included at their school. We acknowledge that in the interpretation and implementation of our policies, there has been confusion about what is permitted as part of upcoming winter celebrations, including Hanukkah.”
Better, but not soon enough to prevent the whole sorry story making headlines halfway around the world, giving the VSB a black eye that could have been prevented by some timely common sense from the VSB leadership ranks.
That wasn’t the end of it. On Tuesday (December 12) of this week, Fraser issued another wordy and awkward statement that finally got around to apologizing to Rebecca and Maya and giving them the thanks they should have had immediately after going public.
Wrong message from the VSB
This is all also a shame, because during the eight years I served on the board, I had many conversations with Jewish parents and those from other faiths who struggled with the decision about sending their kids to public schools. Many supported public education in principle but were concerned that their kids would feel excluded because of their cultural and religious practices. I’d assure them VSB schools embraced and practised religious and cultural inclusion and that strong policies were in place to ensure and guarantee that.
I was proud—and still am—of the VSB’s reputation as a leader in progressive policy and for its diverse, inclusive schools. I believed that if an individual employee failed to abide by board policies, that would quickly be addressed and resolved and students and parents would feel safe knowing they wouldn’t have to fight battles like this on their own. Now I’m not so sure. An incident like this wouldn’t have been handled so poorly in my day at the VSB, and I hope it doesn’t again, but the multilevel missteps don’t inspire confidence in the current leadership.
It quoted him as saying: “The painful irony is that Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom. The Maccabees fought to preserve that freedom and resist the tyranny of the majority that wanted to force their religious symbols and practices upon our people.”
It said the rabbi wondered whether the decision by the school principal was motivated by “willful bias against Jews and Judaism” or “fundamental cultural ignorance”;
in either case, the Times of Israel reported, Moscovitz called for the school board to investigate the fitness of the administrator to hold a position of influence and authority over children.
Fault goes right up the VSB chain
I’d take it a few steps further. It wasn’t just the school principal’s decision; there’s also the big problem of the flawed follow-up by Brennan, Lewis, and Fraser. It went right up the chain and exposed an absence of professional leadership and unaccountability at the VSB’s highest levels. Maya, Rebecca, and all VSB students and their families deserve better than this. A lot better.
On a brighter note, congratulations and Happy Hanukkah to Maya and Rebecca, and good luck with the remainder of Grade 6. I hope you both run for school board—or higher public office—one day.
You are already proven leaders.