Patti Bacchus: A year-end report card for the VSB’s trustees

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      Students aren’t the only ones getting end-of-year report cards. I’ve been monitoring the Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustees’ performances, and as they prepare to take their long summer break, it’s time to report on whether they’ve been keeping their by-election promises and how well they’re doing their jobs.

      The nine trustees were elected last October in the by-election that Education Minister Rob Fleming called to replace the former B.C. Liberal government’s appointed “official trustee”, Dianne Turner. Turner took over after former education minister Mike Bernier fired the previous elected board in October 2016, abruptly cutting its four-year elected term in half.

      Fleming made a good call. Things were going poorly at the VSB under the Liberals’ appointed trustee, with no elected oversight or public accountability and an acute—and growing—teacher and support-worker shortage. Relationships between management and some employee groups had taken a turn for the decidedly dysfunctional. The appointed trustee closed the thriving adult-education centre at Gladstone secondary despite the new government’s promise—since kept—to restore adult-education funding that the previous government cut in 2014.

      Newly elected VSB trustees pose after an Indigenous welcoming blanket ceremony during their first meeting, October 30, 2017.
      Vancouver Greens

      The appointed trustee cut five French-immersion intake classes, despite wait lists for the popular program. She also approved a budget that dealt a death blow to the district’s popular elementary-school band-and-strings program. Turner was also responsible for choosing the unfortunate name “Crosstown” for the VSB’s newest school, which sits on the edge of Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. She selected the bland moniker despite the fact that none of the VSB’s 110 schools has a Chinese name. 

      Promises, promises

      I enjoyed watching the by-election campaign from the sidelines, after having run—successfully— in the three previous VSB elections. The candidates made many promises to voters and I’ve been noting which ones they’ve kept, or even tried to keep, and which ones they seem to have forgotten about.

      I’m reporting them out here by party affiliation and in no particular order, as I’m mostly measuring their performance against their party's campaign-platform promises.

      Non-Partisan Association (NPA): Fraser Ballantyne and Lisa Dominato

      Fraser Ballantyne: This is Ballantyne’s third term on the VSB after being elected in 2011, 2014, and then in last October’s by-election. He and Dominato ran on a platform that promised: a “safe and welcoming work environment where bullying and harassment are not tolerated”; building new schools and seismically upgrading at-risk ones; ongoing professional development for staff; strengthening support for vulnerable and gifted students; and enhancing languages, arts, music, and Indigenous programming.

      It didn’t take long for Ballantyne to return to his old ways after the by-election campaign, when he and his fellow NPA candidates signed an antibullying pledge. He went on a public Facebook rant shortly after the by-election, which included sophomoric name-calling. So much for the antibullying pledge.

      I haven’t seen any sign of new school funding for the VSB, despite the fact new schools are desperately needed in the Olympic Village and downtown. I can’t even give Ballantyne marks for effort to get those schools, because I’ve seen zero sign of that. The same goes for the NPA’s professional-development promise.

      In terms of the NPA promise to strengthen support for vulnerable and gifted students, Ballantyne and Dominato had an easy opportunity to keep that promise by supporting a motion from OneCity Vancouver trustee Carrie Bercic to keep 8.5 “non-enrolling” teaching positions (librarians, counsellors, special education, English-language learner) that VSB managers recommended cutting to balance next year’s budget. They chose not to and voted to support the cuts included in the staff-recommended budget.

      I didn’t see any effort from the NPA trustees to enhance the arts, music, or Indigenous programs, so I’m marking those as promises made that become promises quickly forgotten, much like the antibullying pledge.

      I’m also deducting marks for both Ballantyne and Dominato for abstaining on a vote to ask the government to stop funding elite private schools. Trustees aren’t elected to opt out of uncomfortable conversations without a valid reason. Ballantyne said he agreed with the motion but it was unlikely to make a difference, so he wouldn’t vote. Good grief. Talk about not making any effort at all.

      Ballantyne gets an D.

      Lisa Dominato: I was cautiously optimistic about this new NPA trustee during the election campaign. She struck me as more progressive than the usual NPA candidates, and she had experience in the sector after working for the Ministry of Education. As it turns out, the caution part of my optimism was well warranted.

      Much of what I wrote in the comments about Ballantyne applies to Dominato. She talks a lot about supporting students’ mental health but voted against Bercic’s motion to keep nonenrolling staff from being cut. That could result in fewer counsellors available to support students. She’s done nothing that I’ve witnessed to strengthen supports for student mental health or vulnerable or gifted students, so that’s a major promise broken.

      Dominato also talks a lot about governance and brought a motion to the board to undertake a governance review. It’s not a terrible idea on its own, but it is for a board with a one-year mandate (as opposed to the usual four-year term) and in a year in which VSB schools seems to be at an almost daily crisis point due to a teacher shortage. It was the wrong year to focus senior-staff time and board resources on rewriting a massive policy manual and discussing who should sit where during committee meetings.

      For someone interested in good governance and ethical leadership, it surprised me when Dominato brought a clearly operational issue to the board table. It was a motion to increase the number of seats in a program to train students to be care aids in seniors’ facilities. It’s a tiny VSB program for a reason: few VSB students are interested in specializing in a low-wage field with limited opportunity for advancement. Also, trustees generally don’t determine the number of seats in a specific trades programs. That’s a staff decision best made by those with expertise in career programs. Blurring the roles of the board and managers like this is poor governance practice, period.

      I don’t know if Dominato’s determination to get that item on the VSB agenda had anything to do with the fact that former NPA city-council candidate Mike Klassen—who now works for an organization that represents owners of seniors’ care homes—was advocating for it. I can understand why Klassen’s employer would want  to have the publicly funded school system provide student volunteers for his members’ facilities and to train their future employees, but I’m not convinced it’s in VSB students’ best interests to be encouraged to take the program.

      It may be just a coincidence that Klassen’s boss at the B.C. Care Providers Association is Daniel Fontaine, who was chief of staff to former (NPA) Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan and Klassen’s partner in the defunct City Caucus blog.

      I’m not suggesting Dominato brought the motion forward as a favour to Klassen and Fontaine, but the optics were poor, regardless of the motivation.

      For failing to deliver on promises, misplaced priorities, and poor governance practice, Dominato gets an F for fail.

      Vision Vancouver: Joy Alexander, Allan Wong, and Ken Clement

      Joy Alexander: First elected in 2014, this is Alexander’s second time elected to the VSB. She’s a retired VSB educational psychologist and teacher and hands down the most knowledgeable trustee when it comes to what’s happening in schools and what students need to succeed. She is serving as board vice chair this year but has kept a low profile since the by-election, which is unfortunate.

      Alexander supported Vision Vancouver trustee Allan Wong’s unsuccessful motion to consider giving Crosstown elementary a name to honour and recognize Vancouver’s Chinese community’s extensive contributions to the city, and she spoke eloquently about it. When Alexander does speak, she has important things to say and she should have spoken out more often this year. Her failure to support Bercic’s effort to stave off more cuts to nonenrolling staff cost her marks and was a missed opportunity to make a positive difference for students.

      When Alexander has spoken up, she’s mostly been focused on what’s best for students, except for when she’s praising senior managers for their work and sounding an awful lot like an elementary teacher talking to a group of seven-year-olds (“You’ve done very good work today and I really appreciate it!”).  

      On the other hand, Alexander has done little that I’ve seen to deliver on Vision Vancouver’s platform commitments to reopen adult-education programs or to restore the VSB’s band-and-strings program. Vision also promised to make the VSB a leader in Indigenous reconciliation, while parents at the VSB’s Indigenous-focus school, Xpey', are pleading for more support from the board.

      Alexander chairs the board’s advocacy committee, which used to meet monthly until the last board was fired. It’s only met twice since this board was elected last fall. All the trustees lose marks for that: advocacy is a key part of trustees’ responsibilities.

      Vision also promised to champion protections for LGBTQ+ youth in schools after previously adopting and implementing groundbreaking sexual-orientation and gender-identity (SOGI) policy. The SOGI policy calls for the board to consult with its pride advisory committee, which comprised a wide range of representatives from VSB stakeholder groups and other organizations that support LGBTQ+ people. That committee seems to have dissolved since the previous board was fired and has been replaced with a more generic “diversity” committee that also deals with antiracism work.

      So, much as I respect Alexander for doing and saying many good things this year, she loses marks for failing to demonstrate an effort to deliver on many of her election commitments.

      For speaking out on behalf of students and supporting several advocacy initiatives but falling short of stopping more cuts to nonenrolling teaching positions and failing to keep election promises, Alexander gets a B-.

      Ken Clement:  I served two terms on the VSB with Clement and loved working with him. He’s a kind and generous man with a strong commitment to social justice. I learned a lot from him and he played an important role in a number of the VSB’s important achievements, including signing the district’s first Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement, establishing the district’s Indigenous-focus school (now called Xpey’), and adopting the groundbreaking SOGI policy updates that still serve as a model for other school boards .

      I was pleased to see Clement back at the board table after narrowly losing his seat in the 2014 VSB election. He did some good work this term in educating VSB managers and the board about Jordan’s Principle, which ensures that Indigenous children and youth can seamlessly access services and supports they need.

      Clement has, however, been quiet on most other issues and Vision’s promises and, disappointingly, didn’t support Wong’s Crosstown renaming motion. On the plus side, he has supported Bercic’s student-advocacy work more than the others have, which helps bring his mark up.

      Overall mark for Clement: C+

      Allan Wong: Wong is the board’s longest-serving trustee and has been on the board since 1999, except for the year after the previous board was fired. Like his colleagues Alexander and Clement, Wong, unfortunately, has done little this year to keep the promises he campaigned on in the by-election. Aside from his motion to rename Crosstown elementary, Wong has kept a low profile, and like the rest of the board, he has mostly allowed VSB managers to take the lead on setting the board’s priorities and processes.

      That’s too bad, because as the most experienced trustee, Wong knows a lot about the district, its complex facility issues, and the importance of relationships with employee and stakeholder groups and the public. He could and should have played more of a leadership role in the board’s badly botched catchment-boundary review process. That process has now been pushed off until next year, leaving many families anxious about which schools their kids will be able to attend in the future.

      Wong gets good marks for his sincere, albeit unsuccessful, effort to give Crosstown a worthy name, but he loses several for failing to put an effort into delivering on his campaign promises.

      Wong: C+

      OneCity Vancouver: Carrie Bercic

      Bercic is OneCity Vancouver’s first elected official at any level, and it’s her first term in office. She’s been a standout on the board for her leadership on advocating for students and calling for an end to education funding going to elite private schools. She frequently speaks out on the importance of providing support for at-risk students, the value of school librarians and counsellors, the need to work with Indigenous parents and community to support student success, and the authentic inclusion of students with special needs.

      I’ve attended a lot of VSB board and committee meetings since the by-election, and my impression is that Bercic appears to be the sole trustee committed to delivering on the promises she made during the by-election campaign. It would be interesting to see what she could accomplish if she had some similarly minded colleagues on the board.

      Bercic gets an A for keeping her promises, advocating for students, and being the board’s top-performing trustee

      Green party: Janet Fraser, Estrellita Gonzalez, and Judy Zaichkowsky

      Janet Fraser: Frist elected in 2014, Fraser topped the polls in the 2017 by-election and was elected board chair for this year (the chair is elected by the board members after they are sworn into office). Having been in that role myself for six years, I know its challenges well.

      Key responsibilities for the board chair include ensuring trustees have all the information they need to make informed decisions and that board decision-making includes robust and accessible consultation processes. As the board’s spokesperson, it is also important to be an effective communicator who is responsive to the news media. You also need to know how to chair a meeting.

      Fraser has not done well on these measures. As chair, she shouldn’t have allowed the public-consultation processes—if you can even call them that—for the botched catchment-boundary review process and the B.C. Hydro substation proposal to go ahead as they did.

      Fraser seems reluctant to speak to reporters, which equals a lot of missed opportunities to communicate with the public about what’s going on at the VSB. It’s also a departure from past VSB media-relations practice, which prioritized the public body’s commitment to openness, transparency, and accountability.

      The Green trustees campaigned on promises to advocate for funding, support vulnerable students in inclusive schools, support the SOGI policy implementation and monitor its success, and upgrade the VSB’s LGBTQ+ support worker to full-time status. Yet Fraser and her colleagues have been silent, as far as I know, on the disappearance of the pride advisory committee that supported and monitored the VSB’s SOGI policy implementation. They voted for a budget that included cuts to nonenrolling teachers and didn’t increase the staffing allocations to support the SOGI-policy implementation.

      The Greens also promised to improve financial transparency and reporting, yet Fraser permitted VSB managers to change the VSB’s long-standing budget process to one that many found confusing and opaque. They said they’d use school parking lots to generate revenue outside of school hours (something the previous board brought in) but took no noticeable steps to expand that. They said they’d “strive to protect heritage buildings when implementing seismic upgrades” yet said nothing in response to government’s plan to demolish and replace Bayview elementary, one of the VSB’s highest-rated heritage buildings (thank goodness for that: student safety should come before heritage buildings).

      Once again, we have a trustee who has failed to keep campaign promises. Where Fraser deserves marks, however, is for being a hard worker who attends almost all events in what I know can be a gruelling schedule for the board chair.

      For broken promises and being an ineffective chair, but also for being a hard-working trustee, Fraser gets a C.

      Estrellita Gonzalez: I’ve been to most VSB board and committee meetings since the by-election and Gonzalez has been so unremarkable that it’s difficult to assign her a mark. She shows up, but she hasn’t championed any issues of note and hasn’t contributed much, from what I’ve seen. Like Fraser, she’s shown little evidence of a commitment to keeping the Greens’ campaign promises. When she does speak at meetings, though, she generally comes across as articulate and focused on students.

      For failing to keep key campaign commitments and not making more of the privilege of serving as a trustee, Gonzalez gets a C-.

      Judy Zaichkowsky

      Gonzalez and Zaichkowsky are both first-time trustees, so they get a bit of latitude for not being quite on top of VSB issues. Then again, Bercic is a first timer and she has taken full responsibility for being up to speed on how the school system works. Zaichkowsky has taken a different approach.

      From asking what school counsellors actually do—during a public meeting regarding the budget (to a room full of dropped jaws)—to suggesting during a technical discussion about a school parking-lot design that the VSB should just give teachers bus passes, Zaichkowsky reminds me a little of that flaky aunt who shows up at family gatherings and blurts out awkward things that cause the conversation to stop and then slowly resume, followed by a lot of side eye around the table. She seems nice enough and is a university professor, but I can’t figure out what she’s doing on a school board.

      For being the flaky aunt of the board who doesn’t seem to know much about the district she’s supposed to be governing, Zaichkowsky gets an F for fail.


      Voters will get their own chance to rate the trustees’ performance on October 20, at least for the trustees who are running again (more about that in future columns). In the meantime, let me know in the comments section if you agree with my assessments or if and how you’d mark the trustees yourself.

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