Patti Bacchus: Ten parties and 33 candidates in VSB race

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      Voters will need to do a whole lot of homework before checking off up to nine candidates to serve a four-year term on the Vancouver school board (VSB). There are 28 candidates running under a mixed bag of 10 party banners and five running as independents, for a total of 33.

      It doesn’t sound like much in comparison with 71 candidates for city council, or even the 21 vying for the mayor’s chair. But given so much media attention that gets put on the mayor and council race, having so many school-board candidates to sort out will be tough for the average voter.

      That’s a big change from a decade ago, when only three parties—Vision Vancouver, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), and the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE)—fielded VSB candidates in a race with a total of 19 candidates, including two who ran independently of party affiliation.

      Twenty candidates from four parties ran in 2011, Vision Vancouver, NPA, COPE, and the Vancouver Green Party. In 2014, there were 29 candidates and six parties in the race: Vision, NPA, COPE, Green, Vancouver First, and the Public Education Project.

      Voters are going to have a tough time differentiating candidates from 10 parties, and I’ll do my best through the campaign to help sort them out. Only two parties are running enough (five) candidates to win a majority of seats: Vancouver First and the NPA.

      A majority board is unlikely

      The last party to win a majority at the VSB was Vision Vancouver in 2011. In 2014, Vision and the NPA each won four seats, while the Green party won one, creating a split board with no majority. With such a crowded field—and Vision, the Greens, and One City each running only three candidates—the odds are strong there won’t be a clear majority for any party this time either.

      Some people like that idea. I can see the appeal. Trustees are forced to work together and put partisanship aside and all that nice stuff. Except that’s not how it always works. It can lead to a weak board that is easily led and manipulated by bureaucrats, who don’t have the security of a strong majority to support them nor the threat of being fired for not supporting the work of the board majority. Senior managers also have their own agendas, which may not align with what the trustees or public want to see. So that can be a big problem and result in an ineffective board.

      Being part of a majority carries with it a huge sense of responsibility, at least it did for me during my time on the VSB. You know your vote counts and you can’t simply oppose a motion to make a point or protest, as those in the minority do on occasion. Carrying a swing vote is serious stuff too, as the Green’s Janet Fraser did from 2014 to 2016.

      The current VSB, which was elected a year ago in a by-election, includes trustees from four parties: three Greens, three Vision, two NPA, and OneCity’s first elected official, Carrie Bercic. They haven’t been able to get much of anything done and appear to take their management team’s lead on priorities. Who can you blame? It’s tough when none holds a majority.

      Their budget deliberations last spring were a mess, with a new “process” brought in by new managers that created a lot of confusion and lack of transparency. A much-needed catchment-boundary review-and-revision process to alleviate overcrowding in some schools had to be postponed due to how poorly the process was designed, leaving a lot of uncertainty for many young families.

      A decision to sell underground rights to B.C. Hydro to build an electrical substation at the Lord Roberts Annex site in the West End went ahead despite the VSB leaving almost all the public consultation to B.C. Hydro, which frustrated many West End residents.

      Lord Roberts Annex in the West End was the focus of some local residents' ire when the previous school board allowed B.C. Hydro—which wanted to buy the rights to build a controversial substation underneath the property—to solely conduct public consultations.

      A motion from trustee Allan Wong to give the district’s newest elementary school, Crosstown, a name that honoured a remarkable, historic Chinatown resident and community leader—Won Alexander Cumyow—was defeated due to malarkey about following board processes. It was a missed opportunity to have at least one VSB school name acknowledge the contributions of Chinese Canadians who played important roles in building the city. It was, in my opinion, a sorry display of cowardice and lack of vision on the part of those who voted against the motion, including the board’s chair, Janet Fraser. But it appeared to please the senior bureaucrats.

      With only a short one-year mandate and a staffing crisis plaguing VSB schools, I was surprised the current board decided to prioritize rewriting the district’s large policy manual. It’s one of those housekeeping jobs that needs doing, but it’s also a time-consuming and costly task (there is usually an expensive consultant involved in these projects). It appears the bulk of the work updating the board’s policies—policies that were developed over decades by previous boards, usually with extensive public consultation—has been going on behind closed doors. That’s troubling. Changing policy—even seemingly minor revisions— via the back door is appalling, undemocratic governance.

      It seemed like an odd thing to prioritize at a time when parents and frontline staff were raising the alarm about a staffing shortage that meant students with special needs weren’t getting the services they needed and staff were burning out from being pulled to cover classes due to a lack of substitute teachers.

      Instead of fiddling with policies, they should have deployed district senior managers to take turns helping out in schools. They could each do a day or two a month, covering classes when teachers were absent. All hands on deck in a crisis, etcetera. It would boost morale in schools to see managers helping out, and it would help managers stay in tune with what’s going on in schools. Most importantly, it would mean special-education-resource teachers could do the jobs they were hired to do—supporting students with special needs—instead of filling in as substitute teachers. That would be putting students first. Hours and hours spent rewriting and reorganizing a policy manual is not.

      Even with a public-education-friendly government in Victoria, it’s important to elect effective trustees who will actually put the needs of students first, not just talk about it. There’s a lot at stake and voter turnout will be important.

      The issues

      The catchment-boundary review still needs to get done after being so badly bungled last year. That will have many parents calling for policy changes that will grant siblings the right to attend schools their older brothers and sisters go to, even if their assigned catchment school changes as a result of the review. I wrote about this issue a few months ago.  

      The review is necessary because of overcrowding in several VSB elementary schools. That has meant parents sometimes have to enter lotteries to get their children into their neighbourhood schools. It’s incredibly frustrating to discover that your child can’t attend your local catchment school, even if it’s a block away, because it’s oversubscribed. Adjusting the catchment boundaries would help alleviate some of that, although it won’t please everyone.

      The long-term solution is to build new schools in areas like the Olympic Village and downtown, and that’s likely to shape up to be an election issue. Voters may want to know how hard candidates will work to get new schools built, and they will be asking incumbents what they’ve done about it so far. Progress has also been slow on getting all schools seismically upgraded. With an NDP government in Victoria, the pace is picking up, but many parents will be asking when their kids’ school will be upgraded or replaced and which candidates will be most likely to make that happen.

      I suspect many voters will also be asking which candidates will be the school district’s best advocates and most likely to secure funding needed to ensure students have the staffing, programs, and resources they need to be successful. There’s a lot of catching up to do after 16 years of cuts under the B.C. Liberal government and trustees will need to make compelling cases for more money.

      Charlie Smith

      The staffing shortage seems to be improving compared with the past two years at the VSB, but some voters may be looking for candidates with innovative ideas for recruiting and keeping good teachers and support workers. That may involve finding ways to ensure school-board employees can find housing and other incentives to attract—and keep—teachers and support workers who may be tempted to go to less-expensive housing markets.

      There’s still an acute need to improve services and supports with students with special needs and to make their inclusion meaningful and beneficial. I’m also seeing calls for the VSB to do more to address the problem of lead contamination in school drinking water, along the lines of what the Victoria school district did, by replacing its water fountains and installing bottle fillers and filtration systems.

      I expect there will be some calls for increased access to choice programs, including French immersion, Mandarin bilingual, Montessori, and mini schools, and restoration of the district’s popular elementary band-and-strings program.

      I’ll be watching to see if there’s pressure to reopen some of the adult-education centres, particularly the large one that was located at Gladstone secondary.  It was closed by the government-appointed trustee after the previous board was fired in 2016. Now that the NDP government has restored adult-education funding that the B.C. Liberals cut in 2014, reopening makes sense and would improve access for adult students who need to complete or upgrade high-school credits to get into postsecondary programs.

      It remains to be seen if voters will be looking to candidates to push forward on the government’s childcare plan. The $10-a-day plan envisions childcare coming under the Ministry of Education, so school boards will be important partners.

      And although the VSB has been at the forefront of creating and implementing groundbreaking policy protections and commitments for students, staff, and families of all gender identities and sexual orientation, the entry of Ken Denike and Sophia Woo to the race may stir that up as an issue again. Sigh. Stay tuned and hope it doesn’t.

      I’ll also be watching to see if any parties or candidates commit to a return to open and transparent decision-making at the VSB, with authentic public engagement. The current board is doing more work behind closed doors that previous boards did, including private meetings with its “stakeholders”. There’s been an appalling lack of public consultation on issues like the catchment-boundary review (no, information open houses are not enough) and the B.C. Hydro substation sale. If I was running, I’d be clear about restoring real consultation, engagement, and transparency at the VSB.

      I’ll be taking a closer look at the parties and candidates in the weeks to come. Feel free to drop me a line at and let me know what you’ll be looking for in the candidates’ platforms.

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