Patti Bacchus: Questions about Vancouver School Board managers' pay increases after board’s firing

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      Vancouver school board (VSB) documents released last week show top district staff—including the group that booked off on leave just before the last board was fired—got pay increases while there was no elected board to approve them.

      B.C. school boards are required to release annual “statements of financial information” (SOFI) that show who got paid what for the previous school year.

      As a trustee for eight years, I reviewed those reports closely, as I would invariably get questions from reporters or citizens about expenditures. Without fail, VSB managers were able to answer any questions I had—or needed to answer—about why someone got paid something. For me, it made for interesting reading. For most normal people, I suspect it probably wouldn’t.

      I was particularly interested in seeing this year’s numbers come in after the VSB’s unusual 2016-17 year, which, for the most part, was operating without direct elected oversight, due to the board’s October 2016 firing by former education minister Mike Bernier.

      Suspicious change in routine

      The VSB typically reviews the staff-prepared annual SOFI at its December finance-and-legal-standing-committee meeting, prior to formally approving it at a board meeting and then submitting it to the Ministry of Education by the end of the year. I was surprised earlier this month to discover the finance-committee meeting had been inexplicably cancelled, given the importance of the report in terms of transparency and accountability. The standing committee gives trustees and stakeholder-group representatives a chance to ask questions and discuss the report. I was advised the plan was to skip the committee discussion and take it straight to the board for approval, denying nontrustee committee members the opportunity to ask questions.

      That made me a little suspicious.

      I raised a minor ruckus with the VSB about that idea, and they decided to reschedule the cancelled committee meeting for two hours prior to the 7 p.m. VSB public board meeting. There were a few questions from trustees and stakeholders, but fewer than most years and the meeting was brief.

      If I’d been at the table, I’d have asked a lot more questions. Here’s why.

      Readers may recall that the VSB, like most B.C. public-school boards, struggled financially under the former Christy Clark government. Year after year, boards faced cost-cutting and school closures in order to balance their budgets. In 2016, the VSB faced an almost $22-million funding shortfall. Its senior management team presented trustees with a budget proposal that included extensive staffing and program cuts required to balance the underfunded budget. I was one of those trustees and it was an agonizingly familiar process. We’d done it before. Year after painful year.

      The senior managers said the elementary band-and-strings program—which had been on the chopping block before but ultimately spared by the trustees—had to go. They said we’d have to cut the sole part-time antiracism teacher/mentor position. The long list of required cuts went deep, they warned us, and the cuts would affect kids right across the district. There were no other options, they said. Next time we’d have to close schools, they warned us. Several schools. The cupboards were bare. Or so they said.

      They said we were budgeted down to the dollar and there was no financial wiggle room left. We’d drained the cash reserves to keep the school programs running, and that well was dry. Trustees spent several tense weeks in the spring of 2016 looking for ways to keep the music programs and take some of the other staff and program cuts off the table. When it came time to vote, most of us said we couldn’t support the budget and its cuts. We voted the budget down, knowing we were defying a B.C. School Act requirement to submit a balanced budget to the education minister and that failing to do so meant we could be fired. We put our jobs on the line to say enough was enough.

      Funding mysteriously appeared

      However, a curious and not-so-funny thing happened in the fall of 2016, just two weeks after the start of the first school year without elementary band-and-strings classes (they were cut by management despite the board not approving the budget, since there—apparently—wasn’t money to pay for them). VSB managers were having problems with a glitchy new payroll software system. They needed 10 additional staff “to address the long-term sustainability” of the system, for a total cost of $852,644 per year, according to a September 16, 2016, staff memorandum to the board.

      Surely, one would think that given the district’s dire financial situation, that would be impossible—after all, we were budgeted to the dollar and couldn’t even afford to keep a much-loved, $400,000 a year band-and-strings program or a part-time antiracism teacher/mentor. Where would $850,000 come from? Well, lo and behold, a miracle occurred. Or something like that. According to staff in this report (scroll way, way down—it’s under “Item 3”), it was a simple matter of tapping into a utilities account and a “replacement” budget that had extra money in them.

      Why that money wasn’t available for the band-and-strings program or to prevent further teacher cuts, I never understood, despite efforts to find out. But that was just the start of it, in a year that was apparently “budgeted to the dollar”.

      A dig through the 2016-17 SOFI document indicates that senior VSB managers—including those who took several month’s leave due to an allegedly “toxic” workplace (a result of such unimaginable horrors as trustee eye-rolling, sighing, tweeting and texting during meetings, and questions about consultation costs, oh, my!)—got five-figure pay increases while there were no elected trustees to keep an eye on things.

      Did substitute-teacher savings pay for increases?

      It’s still a mystery to me where they managed to find the money in the VSB’s cash-strapped budget that was apparently so lean that at the end of last June they had to close the busy and much needed Main Street Adult Education Centre (most recently located at Gladstone secondary, near a SkyTrain station), forcing adult students to travel much farther to the less-accessible South Hill site, just off Fraser at East 45th Avenue.

      There’s also no evidence to suggest the money they saved by not hiring substitute teachers last year to cover for many absences went to cover the increases, but it’s been tough to figure out why the VSB had such a serious staff shortage last year when the restored teachers’ contract terms and resulting provincewide shortage didn’t kick in until this school year.

      Former VSB superintendent of schools Scott Robinson, who “left” (the VSB is mum on whether he resigned or parted ways on other terms) the VSB early last June, made almost $18,000 more in 2016-17 than he did in 2015-16, for a total of $261,630 last year. The increase came despite Robinson taking October, November, and December 2016 off and not attending public VSB meetings after September 2016 until his June 2017 departure. Notwithstanding that he worked just over two-thirds of the year, Robinson also racked up a $12,000 expense tab. On top of that, he may have been paid severance costs, but I haven’t been able to get anyone at the VSB to confirm whether he did or not, despite several requests.

      Speaking of severance, while the elected trustees were away, the district, under the oversight of only a government-appointed trustee who was on secondment from her own—wait for it—job as a superintendent of schools in Delta, approved eight severance agreements for nonunionized employees—up significantly from the year before, when only two such agreements were made. I asked VSB chair Janet Fraser how much those eight severance payments totalled, but she told me there’s no legislation requiring them to release that information, implying, I presume, that they won’t tell the public anything the government doesn’t make them. In my day at the VSB, we strived for openness and transparency and only kept things confidential when we were required to by law. Things have sure changed at the VSB.

      Government-appointed trustee listed as B.C.’s highest-paid “elected trustee” in VSB report

      The appointed and decidedly unelected trustee who replaced the fired board, Dianne Turner, served eight-and-a-half months in that role during 2016-17 and appears, oddly, in the SOFI report under the heading “elected officials” along with the fired trustees. We each made about $7,600 for the year up until our October firing (the VSB’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30). It turns out that being appointed is a lot more lucrative than getting elected the old-fashioned way. Turner clocked in at $166,732 for just over eight months’ work as trustee. And by “work” I mean cutting back on the public board meeting schedule to one meeting a month and cancelling several public committee meetings. Sweet gig, I guess.

      You’d think the new elected trustees, who approved the SOFI statements at their Monday board meeting this week, would have instructed staff to put an asterisk by Turner’s entry and a note that she wasn’t elected. Instead, they asked few questions and gave it their stamp of approval, casting the report into the public record, and history will now show Turner as the province’s best-paid trustee ever “elected”.

      Turner wasn’t just well paid herself, she was generous to her superintendent-type colleagues as well. 

      With Robinson off work for three months in 2016-17, Turner called on retired school superintendent John Lewis to cover for Robinson. Lewis’s name may ring a bell following “double dipping” accusations three years ago, when he retired as North Vancouver’s superintendent of schools, only to go back as a contractor, when he collected his pension plus full contract pay.

      Presumably still collecting that superintendent pension, Lewis shows up twice in the VSB’s 2016-17 SOFI report, getting $105,000 for filling in as acting superintendent for what appears to be about three-and-a-half month’s work while Robinson was off, and again as a “supplier” under the moniker “John Lewis Executive Advisor Inc.,” for an additional $81,804—triple dipping, if you will, in a district that was operating with no elected oversight and budgeted to the dollar.

      Associate superintendents seem to have done well

      Somewhere during that magical-for-managers time of no elected oversight, the next level down—associate superintendents—appear to have cashed in as well.

      Associate superintendent Nancy Brennan’s remuneration, according to the financial statement, was up almost $24,000, to a total of $168,243 in 2016-17 compared to $144,267 in 2015-16, along with more than $8,600 in expenses. By my count, Brennan took more than three months off last year. Julie Pearce, another associate supe who took a few months off last year, appears in the SOFI as getting a 2016-17 pay increase of $22,614, for a total last year of $168,881, plus another $6,000 in expenses.

      Some of that may be explained by Brennan and Pearce’s start dates with the VSB. I recall they both came aboard in the summer of 2015, so it maybe they weren’t paid for the full fiscal year prior to last, possibly making the increase seem larger than it really was.

      It looks to me like associate superintendent David Nelson did well too, going up from $156,973 in 2015-16 to $173,244 in 2016-17. The highest-paid associate superintendent was Murray Doucette, who clocked in at $195,000 before quitting at the end of the last school year. There are no 2015-16 figures for Doucette, as he was new to the district.

      The 2016-17 statements show Turner added a fifth associate superintendent to the senior team, with Rob Schindel moving up from a director level, where he made $149,000 in 2015-16, to associate superintendent, making $158,000 in 2016-17. 

      Raises due but timing stank

      Now, I don’t begrudge senior administrators decent raises from time to time, and I believe the public-education sector is paid less than equivalent sectors, in many respects. I know that top-level salaries had been frozen for several years and raises were due. But the optics of this are poor for an essentially unsupervised management team that reported to the board in a September 16 memorandum that “every budget is forecast to such a fine degree, there are no buffers for any unexpected expense or contingency.” And don’t forget the months and months they took off on leave, even after those mean trustees were fired.

      How did it come to pass that there was, after all, a “buffer” to cover raises for the VSB’s highest-paid senior managers, not to mention eight severance agreements totaling 66 months of pay? Add in Lewis’s pay and I’m betting it adds up to more than the band-and-strings program the managers insisted the VSB couldn’t afford anymore. And don’t get me started on the $850,000 they “found” in the same budget year to pay for those 10 new positions to support the new payroll system just before we were fired.  

      Parents whose kids are losing out on their special-education resource time when their teachers are pulled to cover for unfilled substitute-teacher positions may wonder if the VSB’s slow response to a staff shortage was perhaps partly by design. The teacher and education-assistant shortage that’s plaguing Vancouver schools is surely saving the district money. A cynical person might wonder if those savings are going to pay for other things—like raises for top staff and money for triple dippers. Teachers who are weary of giving up their prep time to cover classes that don’t have substitutes might wonder the same thing, as might those coping with complex students whose support workers are absent, with no one to fill in due to a staff shortage.

      It’s all one heckuva case study in why we need elected trustees overseeing this stuff instead of appointed bureaucrats who can give raises to their colleagues without ever having to account to voters at the polls. As a former trustee and board chair who agonized over cutting programs for kids, it pains me to see the highest-paid VSB staff getting more for themselves after telling trustees the cupboards were bare and the kids would have to make do with less, once again.


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