Patti Bacchus: My election picks for Vancouver School Board

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      Who should I vote for for school board?

      That’s what everyone has been asking me lately. With so many candidates in the various Vancouver races—mayoral, city council, park board, and school board—it’s understandably bewildering for those who don’t pay the nerdish amount of attention to such matters that I do.

      As a matter of public service to those who’ve had a tough enough time choosing a mayoral candidate, city councillors and park commissioners, here are my recommendations for the Vancouver School Board (VSB). Although the ballots list the candidates in random order, I’m old-fangled and am sticking with alphabetical order.

      Erin Arnold (Vision Vancouver)  This first-time candidate is running with Vision Vancouver and has a solid record of involvement and leadership in the VSB as a former member of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) executive. I’ve been impressed with Arnold’s focus on advocating for students and her ability to work well with diverse groups. I think she deserves a chance to prove herself on the board, so she gets one of my nine votes.

      Carrie Bercic (OneCity)  First elected a year ago in the VSB by-election, Bercic has been a standout on the current board at the most consistent advocate for ensuring students have the supports and services they need to be successful. She’s also proven herself to be a leader in terms of calling for more meaningful public and stakeholder consultation, and she has pushed hard to ensure parents get information about potential lead content in their children’s school’s drinking water while her colleagues seemed to drag their feet on the matter. She’s earned my vote, and she deserves yours too.

      Diana Day (COPE)  I’ve known Diana for more than 10 years, and she has been a familiar face around the VSB for as long as I can remember. She served on the DPAC and has represented parents on several VSB advisory committees. Day is a strong advocate for improved and expanded opportunities for Indigenous and vulnerable students. If elected, Day would be the first Indigenous woman to serve on the VSB, which would be wonderful to see and long overdue. With the VSB’s commitment to reconciliation, it’s important to have elected Indigenous representation at the board table.

      Erica Jaaf (OneCity)  I’ve been impressed by Jaaf’s knowledge of the school system and all of its challenges and opportunities. She has been an engaged parent for several years, serving on the executive of her children’s school’s parent advisory council and the DPAC. Jaaf is a strong and articulate advocate for students and an equitable and accessible public-education system that provides the support, programs, and opportunities to enable every student to be successful. I’m looking forward to seeing what Bercic and Jaaf could accomplish with the help of other progressive trustees like Aaron Leung. 

      Aaron Leung (Vision Vancouver)  I met Leung when he was a student leader working to get a water-bottle filling station installed in his high school and to get kids drinking tap water instead of buying the bottled variety. After graduating in 2015, he’s been attending university and chairing the city of Vancouver’s child and youth advisory committee. I was the VSB liaison to that committee and was struck by what a great chair he was and how effectively he engaged all the committee members and kept the work of the group on track. Leung's is a familiar face in the gallery at VSB meetings, often live-tweeting. He’s another strong public-education advocate and also passionate about meaningful public engagement, which has been a weakness of the current board. This smart young candidate would bring a lot of knowledge, passion, and energy to the role and would make an outstanding school trustee.

      Morgane Oger (Independent)  Another familiar face at the VSB, Oger is the former chair of the Vancouver DPAC and has deep knowledge of how the school district works and what needs to be improved. Oger has been critical of the current board’s handling of the sale of underground land rights at Lord Roberts Annex to B.C. Hydro, which plans to build an electrical substation. Like my other picks, Oger is a strong advocate for students and would ensure that their interests are put first in board decision-making. Oger is also a fierce defender of the rights of all students to be safe, welcomed, and supported at school and has been a key figure in the fight against those who oppose policies and learning resources that support students, families and staff regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI).

      Barb Parrott (COPE)  Parrott is a retired teacher and vocal public-education advocate who would be a tremendous asset to the VSB. Parrott’s experience working in the school system has given her a deep understanding of what students need in order to be successful in school, and she would work hard to ensure the board is doing everything it can to guarantee that teachers have what they need to do the best job they can in their classrooms. Parrott is a past president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association (VESTA) and would be a valuable asset in helping the board build and maintain a respectful collaboration with its education partners.

      Jennifer Reddy (OneCity)  Several months before she announced her candidacy, Reddy asked me to meet for coffee to talk about the role of school trustee. I admired her interest in learning more about it and how she could use her skills, experience, and passion to do the job well. She strikes me as a true progressive who knows how to listen and learn. That’s what the VSB needs as it struggles through a number of challenging issues. The next four years will call for some difficult decisions to be made and Reddy has the skills and style to approach them thoughtfully and make good choices on behalf of constituents. Her experience as an educator and immigrant support worker will be a real asset on the board.

      Allan Wong (Vision Vancouver)  Wong is the longest-serving trustee and was originally elected with COPE but crossed over to Vision Vancouver while I was still on the board. Wong is a proven public-education advocate who stands up for all students. He has played a key role in moving the district’s seismic-upgrade process forward and brings a thoughtful and pragmatic approach to board decision-making. Wong’s experience on the board and his track record in advocating for students are needed there during the next four years, as the board will undoubtedly be grappling with pressure to close schools and figure out how to get new ones built where they’re needed.

      What makes my list different than others of “progressive” candidates?

      If you look at this list as a whole, you may notice that is strikes a fairly diverse balance in terms of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender diversity, and elected experience. I believe that’s important, in order to reflect the population the board serves. If all nine of these candidates are elected, and I hope they are, we will have a well-balanced board that should have a good grasp of the needs and wishes of the communities they serve.

      My list of picks differs from that of the Vancouver and District Labour Council and the Vancouver teacher-union locals. The union groups’ list of “progressive”-candidate endorsements included Vancouver Green party candidates Janet Fraser and Estrellita Gonzalez. Given Fraser’s record of casting deciding votes for two Non-Partisan Association (NPA) trustees (Christopher Richardson and Fraser Ballantyne) to chair the VSB—fairly disastrously and briefly in both cases—along with her decision to vote with the NPA for a budget that cut adult education and youth programs that Vision trustees (including yours truly) voted to oppose, I can’t support Fraser and don’t consider her to be a “progressive” in a consistent and reliable way. She seems more concerned about keeping VSB senior managers happy than doing the real work of representing communities and ensuring their voices are heard in VSB decision-making.

      Fraser’s performance as board chair for the past year has also been disappointing. The process to revise catchment boundaries to alleviate overcrowding in several Vancouver communities was badly botched and had to be postponed, with little to no opportunity for authentic community engagement in decision-making. Likewise, the annual budget-setting process was confusing and opaque and a distinct departure from previous years. As chair, Fraser failed to make sure the VSB conducted an independent (of B.C. Hydro) consultation process regarding the sale of school subsurface rights to the utility to build an underground substation.

      The current board that was elected in last year’s by-election has been conducting far more business in secrecy than I can recall ever happening before. Most notably, the board worked with an Alberta-based consultant behind closed doors to completely rewrite and replace the board’s entire policy manual, which comprised policies developed and revised by previous boards during several decades. The new policy manual was quickly approved in a public meeting with almost no public debate. That was an egregious governance failure that should make anyone think twice about voting for Fraser.

      Gonzalez has been fairly unremarkable as a trustee for the past year and shows a weak grasp of what a public-education system should and could be. Her dismissal of neighbourhood concerns about the construction of a substation adjacent to a heavily used public park in a densely populated area (“if people don’t like construction, they should move to the country”) was brutally insensitive, given the number of residents with disabilities who live in public housing across the street from the planned facility. She’s not the worst trustee I’ve seen, but she certainly isn’t in the top nine of those who are running, and she hasn’t earned another turn at the board table.

      I suspect the unions were hedging their bets, guessing (probably correctly) that the Greens will get elected with or without their endorsements. Better to have them onside, in that case, than see them as adversaries, I guess.

      You won’t see any NPA trustees on my list because I’ve never really figured out why people bother to run for the VSB as NPA candidates, given that they seldom contribute much at all at the table and don’t really seem interested in improving learning conditions for students. On the contrary, in my experience they’re often poorly informed, sometimes boorish, and end up wasting a lot of the board’s time with rambling, off-topic commentary during meetings.

      If that’s not reason enough to leave them off your list, remember that In the last regular trustee elections in 2014, the NPA promised to stop school closures. Shortly after we were elected, we asked them to vote on a moratorium on school closures. They refused. When I asked Richardson how he could make an election promised to stop closures and then refuse to support a closure moratorium a month later, he told me that election promises were just “aspirational goals” and not really promises. I kid you not. Richardson served, badly, as board chair for six months before tearfully resigning. He’s a nice guy but not cut out to be a school trustee.

      I’m also not voting for candidates being promoted by groups trying to fight progress in schools for creating safe and welcoming learning environments for all students, families and staff, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI). The fact that people appear to be running on that promise is actually pretty sickening. Trustees should be committed to making all students feel safe and supported. I suspect some are just pandering to groups they think will vote for them if they imply they will do something about the VSB’s SOGI policy or the use of SOGI123 teaching resources, which is pretty reprehensible, if it’s true.

      I’m also not recommending candidates who clearly don’t understand what trustees can and can’t do, and who are making promises they have no hope of keeping. If you’ve never attended VSB meetings or been involved in the school system in any capacity, you’re going to have a tough time convincing me you deserve my vote.

      My list is a truly progressive one, composed of candidates who I believe are the best choices to serve for the next four years on the Vancouver School Board.


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