Patti Bacchus: What’s ahead for the new Vancouver School Board?

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      Voters chose nine school trustees—four who are returning incumbents and five new faces—to serve on the Vancouver School Board (VSB) in last week’s election. What’s in store for the next four years and how will the new board tackle its many challenges?

      First off, the board appears split, at least in terms of party affiliations. How that shakes out over the next four years will be interesting to see, at least for folks like me who pay attention to such things. On the right side of the political spectrum, we have three trustees (technically trustees-elect until they’re sworn in on November 5) from the oxymoronically named Non-Partisan Association (NPA), three from the sometimes right, sometimes left, Green party, and one each from Vision Vancouver, One City, and COPE, which all fall more to the left than the NPA and Greens do. I suspect the latter three will work as an informal coalition that will be more inclined to resist things like budget cuts and school closures than the NPA and Greens will.

      I can’t recall there ever being five parties represented at the VSB, so this is new territory that may lead to some surprises.

      The issues, and how the board will deal with them

      Even with an NDP government in Victoria, you can bet the Ministry of Education and the Treasury Board want to see some Vancouver schools closed so they can save money on seismic upgrades. School closures are the most politically fraught issue school boards face, and this board will be pressured to “optimize space utilization” in a way that will inevitably upset some communities.

      The NPA tends to be on board with the idea of closures and consolidations in schools with surplus space, and for the past year the Greens seem inclined to support whatever senior managers advise. Vision’s Allan Wong takes a pragmatic approach and could be inclined to go along with closures. I suspect OneCity’s Jennifer Reddy and COPE’s Barb Parrott would fight closures, particularly in lower-income communities, given the social-justice impacts. Unfortunately, they’ll be outnumbered. My prediction: expect some controversial school closures during this board’s four-year term.

      Seismic struggles

      Parents at Edith Cavell at West 20th Avenue and Cambie are frothing over the VSB’s plan to bus their kids to two separate “swing space” schools on the far side of east Vancouver next September while their school gets a seismic upgrade. I’ve heard from a few, and they’re furious they weren’t included in the planning for the temporary-accommodation idea and also that they were told it wouldn’t happen until the fall of 2020 but recently learned it’s going ahead a year earlier.

      Some are also not happy the plan is to go with the “lowest-cost option”, which is a somewhat half-assed upgrade that won’t deal with a lot of the school’s deferred maintenance issues that will still need to be addressed at some point. I don’t blame them.

      The new board will be hearing from these parents and will be stuck between them and the VSB management and the provincial government. They’d better get used to it, because if they can’t convince the provincial government to consider the bigger picture and build things that make sense over the long term—factoring in full life-cycle costs—people will continue to be angry, making seismic upgrades that should be a great news story into a big headache.

      They’re also going to need to figure out where they’re going to relocate students and staff during some big seismic-upgrade projects, and that may factor into controversial closure decisions.

      Setting boundaries

      With schools in some areas of the city over capacity—particularly those downtown or near the Olympic Village—many families have to enter lotteries to get into their local catchment schools. Lottery losers get offered placements at the nearest schools with space, and sometimes that’s a fair distance away, particularly for those who live car-free. It can also create havoc in terms of after-school-care arrangements and gets a whole lot more complicated if siblings can’t attend the same school.

      The long-term solution is to build more school space where it’s needed, especially in the Olympic Village area. A temporary modular one would make sense until a permanent one is built. In the meantime, the new board is going to have to pick up on the badly botched catchment-boundary review that the outgoing board was supposed to complete last spring. Instead it put it off and tossed that hot potato right into the lap of the incoming board.

      The review was intended to alleviate some of the enrollment pressure in oversubscribed schools by changing the boundaries of existing catchment areas that determine where students get priority for enrollment. If it’s done right, it means more families can attend schools closer to home than is currently the case. The review last year didn’t include meaningful public consultation, which was a big mistake. It also failed to recognize that splitting up siblings is a terrible idea and that any changes need to ensure siblings can attend the same schools, regardless of changes to catchment boundaries.

      It’s a complicated process that will make a lot of people unhappy, but it needs to get done, nonetheless, and it needs to get done soon.

      The future of Kingsgate Mall

      I learned a lot of things as a VSB trustee and as its longest-serving chair, and one of them is that people have feelings about the good old Kingsgate Mall. Some describe it as a little slice of Terrace plunked down on Kingsway, while others are passionate about the important role it plays in providing affordable services to the gentrifying Mount Pleasant community. Few would argue, however, that it isn’t in need of some upgrades, if not a major renovation.

      It just so happens that the VSB owns that prime piece of Vancouver real estate the mall sits on, although the mail itself is owned by the Beedie Development Group, which has a 99-year lease on the land. Beedie pays the VSB for the lease, to the tune of about $750,000 a year. That rate is renegotiated every several years based on market conditions. The previous government pressured the VSB to sell at least a part of the site and use the money to offset an operating-budget shortfall, despite the fact the B.C. School Act says that money from capital-asset sales can only be used for capital projects, like new school buildings, buying land, or seismically upgrading or renovating schools. I was on the board at the time and we refused to sell it, as it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that selling your capital assets to pay your operating costs is a mug’s game.

      The market value of the land is diminished because it’s encumbered by the 99-year lease, so it would be tough to get a good price for the property in an outright sale. I’ve long argued that a better option for the school board would be a hybrid model, where the board sells airspace to Beedie, which could be developed into condos. Beedie would pay the board a lump sum for the airspace, which the VSB could use to supplement the miserly budgets the Ministry of Education provides for seismic upgrades or new schools. It would mean VSB schools could actually have some nice things for a change.

      The VSB could then retain ownership of the land and Beedie could redevelop the mall portion to increase its commercial-rental revenue and pay the VSB a larger annual lease payment that could supplement the district’s operating budget, as it has for decades. The community could still have access to the many retail services the mall provides.

      The new board is going to need to make some decisions about Kingsgate sooner rather than later, as the lease needs to be updated. If they’re savvy, and I hope they are, they could work out a deal that would benefit VSB students for generations to come. But that’s still a big if.


      The shortage of teachers and support workers is supposed to be improving but was pretty much at a crisis point In Vancouver last year, and it was bad the year before. With resignations for both categories up about 300 percent, the new board needs to take a hard look at the employee-services department and figure out why so many people are leaving (in fairness, lots of employees are going to work in suburbs they live in as more jobs have opened up in all districts, but that’s not the only reason) and why there are so many anecdotal reports of qualified candidates not even getting calls back from the VSB and being snapped up by surrounding districts.


      With pretty well all the new money government is putting into education going to pay to hire teachers to get in compliance with the contract language that was restored following the B.C. Teachers’ Federation Supreme Court of Canada victory, it appears the VSB’s chronic funding woes aren’t going anywhere. Factor in that the teachers’ contract expires in the spring, which means teachers will likely be getting a pay increase that will have significant budget implications. It’s hard to imagine there will be money left over for much else

      Last year’s VSB budget process was a bit of a train wreck, and the new board will need to give its management team direction on a more transparent and collaborative process. Will they be up to the task? We’ll find out in a few months.


      The outgoing board voted last month to scrap the district’s entire policy manual that comprised decades of carefully crafted policies and regulations. They replaced it with a document they created in closed-door meetings with their senior managers and an Alberta-based consultant. I know most people may not care about such things, but I find it outrageous and shockingly poor governance. I don’t see the NPA or Greens wanting to revisit that decision, or even Vision’s Wong, although Parrott and Reddy might. Prediction: I think we’re stuck with the new version and we’ll discover if it has any flaws over this term.

      Immediate next steps

      Speaking of changes to policies, the board also inexplicably deleted the VSB’s long-standing bylaws last month, which means the process of swearing in and determining who is the board’s vice chair, committee chairs, etcetera, will look different than it did in my day, and for a long time before that. In the old days, trustees elected a chair at their inaugural meeting. Over the following week, the chair would ask trustees to list their preferences in terms of liaison-school assignments, committee-chair positions, vice chair, etcetera. Then the chair would put a list of assignments together for the board’s approval at its next public meeting. Trustees could move amendments to the chair’s recommendations if they wanted to.

      I know most couldn’t give a hoot about this kind of inside baseball, but when changes like these are made without public consultation, the devil is often lurking mischievously in the details. Whatever. The main difference most who pay attention will notice is that the trustees will elect a chair and a vice chair at their inaugural meeting, and decisions about who chairs which committee will be made behind the scenes (I emailed outgoing chair Janet Fraser to confirm is this is correct, but she did not respond by my deadline to file this column). It doesn’t matter a lot, but it does matter a bit. Those who care about good governance will not be happy, including me. With the composition of the new board, I predict the process changes are here to stay.

      I’m guessing Fraser will be voted in as chair again. She got by far the most votes of any Vancouver candidate and has a year’s experience as chair under her belt. It would be wise to choose a vice chair from one of the other political parties, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Green’s Estrellita Gonzalez elected as VSB vice chair.

      Hoping for the best

      A new board and a new mandate is a fresh start and a time for optimism. I wish the new trustees all the best and hope they can work through the district’s challenges to ensure every Vancouver student gets the best opportunities possible to be successful in their own way.

      Serving as a school trustee is an honour that comes with great responsibility but frustratingly little power. Doing the job well means taking the time to listen, asking hard questions, and listening some more. It means being willing to take a stand for those who can’t do so for themselves. It means doing everything you can to make sure that those who work with students have the support and resources they need to do the best job possible.

      Vancouver is an incredible school district with thousands of employees who come to work each day wanting to make a difference. Trustees need to support them, listen to them, and think about what they would want for their own kids when they’re faced with difficult decisions.

      Congratulations to the new board on being elected to serve. Take good care of the VSB for us during the next four years. We’re all counting on you.

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