Patti Bacchus: The Vancouver School Board has a tough 2018 “to do” list—and only six months to get it done

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      Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustees have a punishing 2018 to-do list to tackle by the end of June. That’s right: June. For all intents and purposes, they only have about six months left in their short mandate. The board usually breaks over the summer while staff take their vacations. When they come back in September, they’ll be in election-campaign mode in the lead-up to the October 20 civic and school-board election.

      How much is there to do? I made a list of the VSB’s top eight tasks for 2018. By the time I was done, I was thanking my lucky stars I’m not on their side of the table this time. They’ve got their work cut out for them—and then some.

      Here’s what’s coming up at the VSB, between now and the end of the school year:

      1. The budget

      Even with a public-education-friendly B.C. government in power, most, if not all, “new” education money will go to paying for restored teaching positions, following the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) 2016 Supreme Court of Canada victory over the former B.C. Liberal government. The Medical Services Plan premiums reduction that kicked in this week will provide some relief for school boards but not enough to cure the chronic money woes that accumulated under the B.C. Liberals. There’s a lot of catching up to do. We’ll get a better sense of what’s in store for school boards' funding in February when the B.C. government unveils its 2018 budget. If there isn’t enough money, trustees could be faced with difficult decisions about how to balance the 2018/19 budget they need to approve this spring.

      2. School closures

      This political hot potato may pop up again despite a new government that includes cabinet ministers who fought school closures when they were in opposition. With dozens of VSB schools still in urgent need of seismic upgrades or full replacements, government will be looking for ways to shorten the list and save on the cost of upgrading or replacing all of them. VSB managers will also be looking for sites that can be used for temporary “swing” space, to house school populations while their schools are upgraded or replaced. One way to do that is to close schools to local enrollment and repurpose the buildings for swing space.

      It sounds fairly straightforward, but it’s anything but. Communities fight to keep local schools open, and parents won’t be keen on having their kids bused to seismically high-risk temporary sites while their local schools are being upgraded or demolished and replaced.

      3. Staffing shortage

      No B.C. school district has been hit by the provincewide teacher and student-support worker shortage like Vancouver has. The VSB has struggled with a shortage of student support workers for years, as their pay and hours are relatively low and turnover is high. Many support workers I’ve gotten to know over the years take second—and even third—jobs to make ends meet in our expensive city. That’s a tough way to live, and they can burn out fast and find better-paying jobs or those with more hours, making qualified workers tough to find and hard to keep.

      The VSB had the dubious distinction of having a teacher shortage the year before the provincewide shortage kicked in last fall. Signs of that started to show up a few months after former B.C. education minister Mike Bernier fired the elected school board in October 2016. By this time last year, I was hearing there was a shortage of VSB substitute teachers and that special-education resource teachers were being pulled from their duties to cover classes when subs weren’t available. There’s some speculation that without an elected board in place for a year, there was little pressure for management to keep up with filling vacant unionized positions, especially when leaving them unfilled is a big money saver.

      With a shortage also causing problems in Vancouver schools last year, along came the March 2016 memorandum of agreement between government, school boards, and the BCTF that following the federation’s 2016 court victory. The agreement restored contract language from 2002 and meant that districts like Vancouver (contract language varies from district to district) needed to hire hundreds of teachers to comply with its contract provisions regarding class size and composition. It also meant that VSB teachers who commute from suburbs were finally able to get jobs closer to home, exacerbating the VSB’s teacher shortage.

      Recruiting and retaining teachers and student support workers will continue to be one of the VSB’s most pressing issues through to the end of this school year, and beyond.

      4. Boundary review

      VSB managers are proposing a “catchment review process” through the spring to determine if boundaries that determine who gets to attend which school will get redrawn. With several VSB schools having to hold lotteries to determine which “in-catchment” kids get it, this review is overdue but is also guaranteed to be controversial. The proposed timing is to have the trustees vote on changes in June, just as they’re heading into campaign season. Oh, boy.

      5. Special education

      The teacher and support-worker shortage is, arguably, affecting the district’s most vulnerable students the most. Students with special needs are often allocated time with special-education resource teachers along with help from a student support worker. Frustration among parents of kids who aren’t getting these services this year is building as they see their kids languishing—or worse—while they wait for support with no end in sight. With high-profile parents like CTV’s Tamara Taggart taking to Facebook to speak out, along with growing groups of parents who are organizing through social-media groups, the VSB trustees need to come up with some student-centered solutions—fast.

      6. Choice program review

      Mini schools, international baccalaureate, fine arts, Montessori, French immersion, Mandarin bilingual, hockey academy, and outdoor-focused programs are just some are the VSB’s choice-program offerings. Are there enough? Too many? Is access equitable or are they elite programs geared to already advantaged kids? Those are some of the factors trustees will be considering as the district embarks on its program review over coming months. If I learned one thing after eight years on the VSB, it’s that people have very strong opinions about choice programs and will fight hard for them.

      Parents are already gearing up to hold the trustees to their by-election promises to restore French immersion classes that were cut last fall while there was no elected board in place. With long wait lists for the popular program, trustees will be looking for ways to restore and expand the classes.

      7. Governance review

      The tension surrounding who calls the shots—the democratically elected board or the district’s senior managers—showed up in 2010 when then-premier Gordon Campbell assigned Comptroller General Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland to do a review of the VSB in response to our advocacy for more funding and several well-attended rallies supporting our position. Although she didn’t find wrongdoing by the board, Wenezenki-Yolland proposed “governance” changes that appeared to be designed to get the trustees to pipe down and limit the input of VSB union representatives to board decision-making. She and subsequent government-appointed “special advisors” have similarly called for changes to the VSB’s long-established standing-committee structure and changes that would reduce trustees’ role in public consultation.

      In my years at the board table, I found the board’s standing and advisory committees invaluable in informing my decision-making and well worth the time spent attending them. They enabled us to hear from a range of representatives—parents, students, teachers, support workers, and administrators, along with senior managers—regarding what we needed to know about the impact of decisions we were considering. Sometimes the experiences and opinions of those working in the field are different from those of senior managers, and we needed to know if that was the case. We’d consider all information and input before casting our votes. Sometimes those votes didn’t go the way some managers wanted them to, but that’s how democracy works.

      With a motion from Non-Partisan Association (NPA) Lisa Dominato to embark on a VSB governance review headed to a standing committee for discussion this month, I expect this tension and ongoing power struggle will heat up over coming months. Make no mistake about it—the “review” is all about politics.

      8. Reconciliation

      The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous graduation rates narrowed, but it’s still too wide. The VSB needs to focus on its commitment to reconciliation and improving opportunities and outcomes for Indigenous students and provide support and resources to ensure all students are learning about First Nations history and culture, including opportunities to learn Indigenous languages.

      With the City of Vancouver preparing to issue a formal apology this spring for historical discrimination against Chinese residents in Vancouver, long-time VSB trustee Allan Wong is asking the board to rescind government-appointed trustee Dianne Turner’s decision to name the VSB’s newest school Crosstown elementary in order to name it in honour of historic Chinese Canadian leader Won Alexander Cumyow.

      I met Wong about 15 years ago, and ever since I can remember he’s talked about the historic opportunity that a brand-new school on the edge of Chinatown would present to recognize the neighbourhood’s cultural history and the contributions of Chinese Canadians in building the city.

      With 110 schools, the VSB doesn’t have any named after Chinese Canadians, but it has many named after British queens, kngs, princes, lords, generals and admirals. The absence of any Chinese-Canadian names is surely an omission rooted in racial discrimination. Wong’s proposal is an important step on the path to addressing historical wrongs.

      Wong’s motion to replace Crosstown with Won Alexander Cumyow will be discussed at the January 17 VSB planning-and-facilities standing committee meeting at 5 p.m.
      Those wanting to speak at the meeting need to register in advance.

      That’s the top eight on my list, although I expect there will be some surprises that pop up along the way. After they get through all this, it will be interesting to see how many of the trustees jump back in the race for the 2018 election. Good look and happy new year to them.

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