Patti Bacchus: Plecas report’s lessons for school boards

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      The nausea-inducing Plecas report has had my blood pressure in dangerous territory all week. Reading the allegations of shockingly flagrant spending of the public’s money on a sickeningly long list of luxury items and questionable overseas trips—all adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and possibly more, of our money—makes me want to vomit, just as Plecas promised it would.

      It's like a punch in the gut to think that all of this lavish spending of the public’s money was apparently going on while school boards were being forced to make decisions about cutting programs and services, and while schools were begging for charitable donations to feed hungry kids and teachers were using their own money for basic classroom supplies.

      And I’m not only angry at the two accused in the report, I’m outraged at the nasty and expensive games the former B.C. Liberal government was playing—and paying for with your money—to disrupt the Vancouver School Board (VSB) in a desperate effort to distract the public from the attention we were drawing to underfunding of our public schools while they turned a blind eye to what was going on under their own noses.

      If that’s not enough to make you upchuck, recall the B.C. Liberal government ordering an expensive forensic audit of the VSB, presumably to discredit us while we were calling them out for shortchanging kids and refusing to approve more budget cuts.

      Heck, the VSB superintendent at the time warned me that the government’s appointed “auditor”, Peter Milburn, a former deputy minister, was specifically asking for information about trustee expenses—particularly mine. The joke was on them and the unfortunate taxpayers who were paying Milburn’s bill, given how little VSB trustees ever claimed. My expense claims for my last three years in office added up to a big fat zero, although I did partake of several sandwiches and carrot sticks that were served at committee meetings.

      With the help of a team from the accounting firm EY, Milburn came up with exactly one finding and recommendation as a result of the VSB forensic audit: that there should be a formula used for when trustees get or make personal calls on their board-supplied cell phones, for those who used them. I never had a VSB phone myself, but it seemed laughable that while a trustee getting a call from home on the board-paid phone cost the district absolutely nothing, these highly paid consultants thought this warranted a formal recommendation. I guess they had to come back with something to justify EY’s six-figure bill.

      Imagine what they would have come up with if they’d been looking into the spending at the legislature instead of harassing school trustees who were refusing to cut more programs and services for kids?

      Plecas report’s lessons for trustees

      If the nausea ever passes, and even if it doesn’t, it will be important to take lessons from the disgusting stench emanating from the legislature.

      It’s too early to have a full picture of how things could go so terribly and expensively wrong, but it’s easy to see that a lack of transparency and accountability is surely at the core of this mess.

      Charlie Smith

      Daylight is a disinfectant

      There’s an old saying that “democracy dies in the darkness”. As a school trustee and school-board chair, I made openness, transparency, and accountability a priority. I conducted board business in public meetings, except when there was a legitimate reason not to, such as an individual’s privacy or a legal or real-estate negotiation. I call recall a specific case, when I was no longer chair, in which trustees were asked by managers to make what amounted to a large budget amendment behind closed doors and I refused to participate in the vote. That stuff just leads to trouble, sooner or later.

      I valued openness and transparency in public and stakeholder consultation as well. I posted my personal cell-phone number on the board’s website and responded to calls personally. I answered promptly and forthrightly to calls from the news media and encouraged trustees to feel free to speak for themselves while I spoke for the board, as its chair.

      It seemed like straightforward good practice, so I’m alarmed to be back on the other side of the fence and discovering that many school trustees and board chairs are taking a different approach. This will lead to trouble, I guarantee it. Perhaps not the Plecas-report kind of trouble, but what I already see is setting off alarm bells.

      Secretive new school-board practices will lead to trouble

      Take last Monday’s (January 28) VSB meeting, for example. A trustee asked about attending budget-consultation meetings with “stakeholder” groups. This sounded like a no-brainer to me. As far as I can remember, the VSB’s annual budget process included a series of public meetings, some for “stakeholder” (various employee groups, parent representatives, and students) input and others for public input. All were open to the public and news media, and trustees and staff attended. The meetings were usually chaired by a trustee and varied in format. They were always informative and useful, in terms of everyone in the room getting to hear what others had to say. It allowed those in attendance to give informed input and feedback and enabled trustees to ask questions to gain a greater understanding of various perspectives regarding what the VSB budget should prioritize.

      It was time-consuming but worth every minute. In many ways, it made our work harder, after hearing firsthand how various cuts would affect kids and the folks whose jobs it was to teach them. But it made our decisions better informed and better overall.

      How does this relate to the Plecas report? The VSB is now having its managers conduct private separate meetings with its “stakeholder”-group representatives, to hear their budget input. That means trustees won’t hear directly, or have the chance to ask questions, and groups won’t hear what other groups have to say. I was never comfortable with some groups trying to whisper in trustees’ ears about what they wanted us to do. I encouraged them to speak openly at the public meetings so everyone could hear what they had to say. It’s not a huge thing, and it’s not like these meetings will lead to the kind of outrageous things that are being alleged at the legislature, but it’s a slippery slope, and secrecy and closed doors seldom result in good governance decisions. Democracy dies in the darkness, slowly but surely.

      It also alarms me to hear that the board is considering major revisions to the district’s long-range facility plan, the document that maps out the future of the VSB’s school buildings, including which ones may be closed or, in the current parlance, “consolidated”.

      Given how much public and community interest there is in what happens to the public’s schools, one would expect that process would be conducted in public meetings, as it has been in the past. One would be very wrong.

      Instead, the trustees will get a draft plan from their staff in a closed-door meeting in mid-February, and “stakeholder representatives” will be invited to see and discuss it in a private “workshop” at the end of February. The plan will be made public in mid-March, just days before schools close and families head off for a two-week spring break. Trustees are expected to vote to approve the plan on April 8.

      If you wanted to design a process that ensured minimal public engagement—and to pretty much guarantee that those pesky and outspoken parent advisory councils (PACs) wouldn’t have enough information in time to raise any sort of inconvenient ruckus—this is precisely the process you’d cook up.

      School boards’ poor media and communications practices a problem

      There’s also a lot less openness when it comes to responding to media questions on the part of some trustees. I had an interesting experience this week when I was contacted by someone from the Cariboo-Chilcotin school district alleging that the special advisor Education Minister Rob Fleming appointed to “help” the school district had asked trustees to delete some emails he’d sent them. One trustee told me she was uncomfortable with the alleged request. I would have been too, especially given the previous government’s triple-delete scandal and the current education minister’s positon regarding it.

      Fleming was particularly critical of the former government, citing its “lack of ethics” following the email scandal, and one presumes he would not be happy to hear his own appointee may have asked or directed the school trustees to deliberately delete or destroy emails or that they may have been using personal email accounts for board business.

      I emailed Willow MacDonald, who chairs the Cariboo-Chilcotin school board, on January 27 to ask if it was true they’d been asked or directed to delete emails from their advisor, Mike McKay, and if, in fact, she repeated McKay’s alleged request to her board. She must be very busy, because she didn’t reply to my emailed questions until Wednesday night, when she still didn’t really answer the questions I’d asked but offered me “many blessings”. I’d prefer straight answers. So much for openness and transparency on the part of elected officials.

      One Cariboo-Chilcotin trustee confirmed to me that they were, indeed, asked to delete emails from their Fleming-appointed special advisor, while a couple of others first said they couldn’t answer the question and then denied it and told me I should direct all future questions to their chair, who doesn’t seem inclined to respond. Around it goes.

      I have no idea now of what’s true or not in this case, so I’ve filed some freedom of information requests to try to get to the bottom of it. But what’s most important is that It shouldn’t be this hard to get straight answers when it comes to how elected officials are conducting business on our behalf, and things like secret closed-door meetings and deleted government records and the use of personal email addresses for the public’s business are a sure path to poor decisions that have the potential to lead to trouble, like this legislature-spending debacle.

      We get the governments we deserve

      It should never have gotten to this point in B.C. Over time, I hope we can identify what exactly went awry and who failed to ensure there were controls in place to stop public officials treating taxpayer’s money as their personal expense accounts for whatever their entitled hearts may have desired while kids were going hungry, music programs were being cut, and boards were agonizing over closing schools.

      As citizens, we need to be outraged and insist on accountability and transparency from our elected officials at all levels, including school boards. We need to defend democratic processes and call out those who deliberately and willfully undermine them—inlcuding school trustees who refuse to answer simple questions forthrightly and openly. We need to demand that the public’s business is conducted publicly and stop elected officials and senior bureaucrats from huddling and whispering behind closed doors whenever it suits them.

      We all need to let our elected representatives know what has been going on has to stop and never be allowed to happen again. That goes from the highest political offices to those at the bottom of the political food chain. It’s not enough to say you expect rules to be followed—as we did with the legislature staff—those in political office must make sure the rules are in place and that they are actually followed.

      Meanwhile, keep the barf bags handy. If nothing changes, you’ll be needing them again. And again.

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