Patti Bacchus: What the Vancouver School Board candidates told me

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      First off, thank you to the 20 candidates running to be Vancouver school trustees who replied to my questionnaire. Campaigning for public office is hard, exhausting work, and there’s a lot of annoying things you have to do. Filling in questionnaires is high on that list.

      For what it’s worth, I suffered too, as it took me hours and hours to sort, format, and put together a coherent list of responses and correct a whole lot of random capitalizations (see the link below to read what the candidates had to say in response to my 10 questions.)

      To the 13 candidates who didn’t bother to submit responses: well, that tells voters a little about how much you’re interested in telling them where you stand on key issues, so shame on you.

      NPA ignored request

      Although I specifically noted I was asking to hear individual replies from each candidate—in their own words, and not party lines—the five Non-Partisan Association (NPA) candidates chose to send only a party response. I haven’t included that in my compilation as voters can easily access party platforms. The purpose of this questionnaire was to hear from the candidates themselves.

      It’s unfortunate the NPA candidates chose to pass up this opportunity to reach out to voters. I’m sure some would like to know if the NPA trustees consider their school-board platform actual commitments this time or merely what former trustee and current candidate Christopher Richardson dismissed as mere “aspirational goals” only a month after the 2014 election. That gem was in response to why the NPA trustees wouldn’t support a motion calling for a moratorium on school closures despite promises to prevent school closures in their election platform.

      Although given that both current NPA trustees—Fraser Ballantyne and Lisa Dominato (running for city council this time)—recently voted to sell school underground property rights to B.C. Hydro, I can understand why Ballantyne, who is running for reelection to the Vancouver school board (VSB), might have been uncomfortable reconciling his record with the NPA’s statement to me that “school board-owned lands are not for sale nor should they ever be.” As the kids used to say on twitter, #Awkward.

      And if new NPA candidate Chris Qiu’s name strikes a familiar chord, it may be because she was one of the leaders in the fight against temporary modular housing in Marpole last winter.

      Missing names and new ideas

      I got individual responses from all the Vision Vancouver and OneCity candidates, but only one of the two COPE candidates. I also got one from Yes Vancouver and Pro Vancouver’s sole school-board candidates, and from two of Coalition Vancouver’s four candidates. Three of five Vancouver 1st candidates submitted responses. Two of the three Green party candidates replied, as well as IDEA Vancouver’s B.K. Barbara Anderson. Three of the five candidates running independently also responded.

      Charlie Smith

      Several common themes emerged: the need for improved transparency and consultation in board decision-making; the importance of effective advocacy for funding; teacher recruitment and employee housing; the need for improved support for students with special needs; seismic upgrades; the need for new school space in some neighbourhoods; support for students’ mental health; trustee advocacy and accountability, and the need for expanded access to childcare on school sites.

      What struck me was how similar most of the responses were, which demonstrates a fairly good understanding of the VSB’s key issues by most of the candidates. But not all. Tony Dong says a perceived increase in school violence is a top issue, but I and the facts beg to differ.

      I didn’t see any brilliant new ideas that jumped out in the responses, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The VSB’s challenges are well known and don’t have simple solutions. It’s a tough slog, and progress comes in small increments. A few candidates—IDEA Vancouver's Anderson and Coalition Vancouver's Ken Denike and Sophia Woo—noted they would seek a bigger share of the province’s new school-tax levy on homes valued over $3 million, which is a new opportunity definitely worth exploring. Vancouver already pays proportionately far more in school-tax levies than it gets back from the province compared to other districts, and the new levy will primarily affect Vancouver homes, so they could make a reasonably strong case to get a piece of that pie.

      Denike and Woo also proposed housing supplements for VSB employees along the lines of what sometimes happens in remote communities.

      SOGI a divisive issue

      While they get some marks for those ideas, they lose them and more for their mealy-mouthed eplies to my question about whether they fully support the VSB’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities (SOGI) policy and are committed to implementing it. Nope, you can’t have it both ways. Read their answers for yourself in my compilation of the responses.

      In terms of the official SOGI policies and the use of learning resources developed to support teaching about SOGI-related topics, 13 candidates responded that they unequivocally support the policy and its implementation. Seven others did not—and, of course, 13 didn’t bother to respond at all. Independent Kelly Alm’s response was pretty much incoherent. Vancouver 1st's Stéphanie Descôteaux took the dog-whistle-like “parents’ choice should be respected” and “community consultation” approach being touted by anti-SOGI advocates across Metro Vancouver. Running mate Pratpal Gill left the answer blank, while the two other Vancouver 1st candidates—Bruno Baronet and Marco Lee—chose not to reply to the questionnaire. (Fellow candidate Tony Dong quit the party over its SOGI stand and decided to run as an independent after his response to the questionnaire.)

      Independent candidate Tavis Dodds, running under the moniker Mrs. Doubtfire, had a noteworthy response to the SOGI question: “If there is resistance from parents to the SOGI program implementation then the board must consider this. That said, I am a man named Mrs. that wears dresses.” Fair enough.

      Corporate and charity support a common theme

      One takeaway that stood out for me was the number of candidates who brought up corporate and charitable sponsorships as one of the solutions to the VSB’s chronic money woes. Having served on the VSB for eight years, including six years as its chair, I can tell you that’s a naive and impractical solution.

      When I was elected for the first time, in 2008, one of the first recommendations the management team gave us was to wind down the district’s charitable foundation. While the foundation sounded nice in theory, the administrative costs of operating it outweighed the benefits it brought to students. Those who quietly donate, year after year, continue to do so and get tax receipts. Most support specific programs, like breakfast in inner-city schools, on a consistent basis. There’s no need for a foundation to be involved.

      Other donors come forward with one-time donations that can be time-consuming and impractical for management staff to manage. Others want something in return, like a local philanthropist who wanted to set up an event through his public-relations firm, complete with him posing with photos of needy children. Yuck.

      The reality is the VSB is a major urban school board that has enough on its plate trying to deliver education services and supports to students. To put it in the business of chasing down donors, managing donor funds, and keeping donors happy, means taking managers from tasks they already have. It doesn’t solve the real funding issues and causes a whole new set of problems.

      The NPA says it will reestablish the failed Vancouver Schools Foundation, and they should really know better. Likewise, a couple of the Vancouver 1st candidates—Descôteaux and Pratpal Gill— propose going after sponsorships, while their running mate Dong says he’ll bring in “six sigma and lean management” techniques, which is a novel approach for a public-school district, at best. Independent Morgane Oger mentioned charitable organizations in her response.

      I was also looking for instances where incumbents’ responses contradicted their own records. One that stood out for me was current board chair and Green party candidate Janet Fraser. When asked what she would do to ensure the district has the funding it requires to meet the needs of all students, she noted: “One priority was set by the current board by unanimously passing a motion to prepare a needs budget for Vancouver’s students, which would be informed by the 2016-2021 Strategic Plan, consider past VSB budgets and be created with input from VSB stakeholders.”

      Which would be all well and good except for the fact that the board never followed through on the motion that was passed during last year’s spring budget process. It never developed nor submitted the needs budget, which in previous years was submitted to government alongside the “compliance” budget prior to the end of the school year.

      The purpose of the needs budget (sometimes referred to as a restoration budget) is to show government how much funding the district needs to provide students with their best chances to succeed. The compliance budget is balanced, within the funding envelope provided by government.

      It takes a lot of chutzpah to take credit for passing a motion that was never implemented by the board you chair. And not in a good way. At all.

      On the more positive side, several of the candidates showed a solid grasp of the VSB’s key issues and had pragmatic, albeit unsexy, plans for how they would address them.

      Next week, I’ll list my picks for the VSB and tell you why I’m voting for some and not for others.

      I’ll close with these inspiring words from independent candidate Mrs. Doubtfire: “Trustees can determine much to do with the allocation of the budget and must focus most of their energies on this, however boring this is. But it is Victoria that holds the purse strings and most candidates vastly overestimate the power the board holds in this regard. I've said it before, first balance the budget according to what has been allocated by Victoria, then you get a list of volunteers, board a ferry to Victoria and occupy the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.”

      All of the candidate responses to the 10 questions are posted here, unedited.

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