Patti Bacchus: VSB needs to up its consultation game

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      It’s tough being a school trustee. You’re caught between all the many constraints that you have to work within: provincial legislation; Ministry of Education policies and directives; inadequate funding; multiple collective agreements; and, in the case of the Vancouver School Board (VSB), a complicated and unwieldy system operated by a change-resistant bureaucracy.

      You seldom have the freedom and latitude to do what you believe is best for kids. Rather, you’re faced with difficult decisions and—in too many cases—the best you can do is vote for the one that’s the least bad of your options.

      What you can do, and what you can promise your constituents, is make your decisions and cast your votes carefully—and only after gathering and weighing as much relevant information as you can about whatever it is you’ll end up voting on.

      In my eight years on the VSB—and, in particular, the six years I chaired the board—I made a point of insisting that everyone who wanted to provide input had a chance to do so, and that I could say in good conscience that I’d listened and considered that input, along with all the information I could find, including management and other expert advice.

      I was fortunate that—for the most part—I worked with a progressive management team that welcomed public consultation and input and wasn’t threatened when people challenged staff recommendations to the board. The good ones listened just as carefully as I did and would revise their advice based on public and stakeholder feedback if they heard information that warranted that. In long budget meetings with lengthy speakers’ lists, I used to say that feedback made our work harder in many ways but there was no doubt it made our decisions better.

      Which is why I’m so disappointed at what has happened to public consultation at the VSB since the board I was on was fired by the former B.C. Liberal government back in the fall of 2016. The trustees should be disappointed, or even angry, too, as it puts them in an even tougher position than they’re already in.

      VSB management keeps dropping the ball when it comes to public consultation

      The current crop of trustees has only been in office since the fall, and some—notably Carmen Cho, Barb Parrott and Oliver Hanson and Jennifer Reddy—have already been pushing management to improve VSB consultation processes. The previous board that was elected in the 2017 by-election only had a year in office and got off to a bumpy beginning, hampered in finding its feet by the hovering presence of “special advisor” Dianne Turner. Turner was a former VSB principal who went on to work in the Delta school district and was appointed by the B.C. Liberals to serve as an appointed trustee after it fired the board I was on in 2016 for having refused to approve budget cuts, including eliminating the VSB’s popular elementary band-and-strings programs, the district’s antiracism mentor, and teaching positions. Once appointed, Turner approved all those cuts and more.

      In what I understand was an attempt to ward off criticism from the B.C. Liberals, NDP Education Minister Rob Fleming asked Turner to stay on and advise the board elected in the 2017 by-election he’d called. Turner was adamant that the new trustees go easy on management, apparently saying managers were “fragile” after the alleged bullying that they endured from the board I was on. While I never saw any trustees bully staff, and I certainly didn’t bully them myself, an investigation that followed cited anonymous witnesses reporting such atrocities as trustee eye-rolling, tweeting, texting, and sighing—which, if you’ve ever attended a four-hour VSB meeting, seems hardly surprising. I’m pretty sure most in the public gallery were doing much the same, and I plead guilty on all counts to those.

      Unfortunately, Turner’s presence made it difficult for a board with only a one-year mandate (regular school board elections were scheduled a year after the by-election) to find its feet and get its work done before the 2018 school board elections. It didn’t manage to do much other than what its managers wanted to do—and as it turns out, the new folks in the corner offices don’t seem to fancy much in the way of public consultation.

      For example

      The last spring that I served at the VSB—the spring of 2016—was a season of many VSB public meetings in communities as the board and its management team worked on the development of a plan to map out the future of the VSB’s extensive real-estate portfolio, which it refers to as its "facilities". The long-range facilities plan (LRFP) was approved in May of 2016, and it was agreed that it would be updated annually. It’s a long and complex plan, which it needs to be, given the size of the school district and the multiple factors that need to be considered in planning for the future of its buildings and sites.

      Parents, students, and supporters of East Vancouver schools delivered thousands of signatures to VSB trustees in 2016 to prevent possible school closures.
      Carlito Pablo

      Turner didn’t bother updating the plan when she took over the board, although it was supposed to be updated in the spring of 2017.  The one-year board that was elected in the 2017 by-election didn’t update it either. The current board, which was elected last October, is scheduled to vote on a “significantly revised” (by management staff) draft LRFP on April 29.

      And while trustees—including me—and VSB management staff spent much of the spring of 2016 consulting with communities about the original plan, the new VSB management brain trust (there’s been almost a complete turnover in VSB management staff in the past three years) didn’t bother to include anything resembling a public-consultation process this time, noting dryly in the draft report (bottom of page 12): “The Ministry does not require that public consultation take pace [sic] to inform the development of a LRFP [long-range facilities plan].”

      Good grief, I’m old enough to remember when senior managers took direction from their boards and did their best to support the board’s work, instead of striving the meet the lowest possible standard set by government.

      None of that’s gone over well with the public, nor with parents whose kids’ schools may end up in the crosshairs of the school-closures processes that are heavily hinted at in the draft report. They’ve been signing up to speak at every board standing-committee meeting they can, despite the absence of meetings set up for that purpose. Following much public criticism and pressure from Cho, Hanson, and Parrott, VSB managers have relented and scheduled two last-minute public-consultation meetings that have been poorly publicized and are taking place late in the process. The first one will be at Kitsilano secondary on April 11 at 6 p.m., and the second will be at Van Tech secondary on April 16, also at 6 p.m. Better late than never.

      Oh, but

      Actually, maybe they didn’t learn anything. The annual—and usually painful—budget consultation process also gets underway this month as the board mulls over management's proposals for how they should balance the districts’ 2019-'20 operating budget. Usually there’s been a lot of information out by now about what kind of a funding shortfall (or surplus) the district is facing, in order to continue to provide the same level of service and programming next year as it is this year. I said usually, because so far I’ve heard nothing about it. We’ll find out more next week (April 9, to be exact), when VSB managers release their 2019-'20 budget proposals to the board and the public and we see whether there’s a funding shortfall that requires spending or staffing cuts.

      That’s cause for some concern, but not as much as management’s original plan for public budget consultation that omitted the board’s traditional out-in-the-community budget meetings that are usually held in schools. This time it was new trustee Jennifer Reddy who spoke up and asked for meetings in schools to be included. It took some pushing, but eventually staff relented and added a meeting at Mount Pleasant elementary to the budget schedule. In my day, we usually had at least a couple there each spring: one for feedback on the initial proposal and another for feedback on any revisions made through the process.

      VSB managers and trustees are also getting their hands slapped hard by parents from Kitsilano’s Henry Hudson elementary and the Downtown Eastside’s Strathcona elementary over a plan to move Hudson’s French Immersion program to Strathcona due to a space crunch at Hudson.

      Henry Hudson Elementary PAC

      Hudson French Immersion parents weren’t told about the plan prior to it being posted on the VSB website in a committee meeting agenda. Neither were Strathcona parents. Both groups have a lot to say about what a terrible idea the proposal is and had to elbow their way onto regularly scheduled committee agendas to let VSB trustees and managers hear them, due to yet another lack of actual consultation process. The board is expected to decide on April 29 whether to proceed with the proposed program move, and the lack of a credible consultation process puts the trustees in a more difficult decision than they needed to be.

      Catchment-boundary review under review, or something

      Anyone remember that badly bungled VSB catchment-boundary review last spring? The one that was such a mess it had parents scrambling to figure out what it was all about and then raising hell about the havoc it would create for their families?  The sorry process was so bad it had to be set aside and was supposed to be relaunched this spring. I’m sure the many parents who were blindsided by it last year—and were scrambling to get information and provide feedback despite a lack of a (yes, you know where I’m going with this) public-consultation process where community members could engage and provide useful feedback—haven’t forgotten about it. 

      The process was intended to inform changes to the boundaries that determine which schools students get priority to attend as their “catchment” schools. In recent years, some VSB schools,—notably, Elsie Roy and Simon Fraser, but several others as well—have more students living in their designated catchment areas than they have seats for. That has meant some families have to enter lotteries to get their kids into their local schools for kindergarten. In some cases, there are schools with surplus space in neighbouring catchments, and the idea is that if the VSB redraws the boundaries, more students will be able to attend schools near to their homes and we don’t have so many crazy cases of kids living across the street from a school but being sent to one much farther away.

      That seems simple enough, but it’s anything but

      The VSB’s biggest blunder last year was not putting policy in place to ensure that siblings wouldn’t be split up as a result of catchment changes. It’s actually pretty simple to “grandparent” (I don’t know a better term for letting those who already have a child there to stay, regardless of boundary changes, and let younger siblings enroll there as well) families and it should have been done that way from the start. I still can’t believe they barged ahead without doing so, but barge ahead they did, and made a big mess of it. Naturally there was a public backlash and they had to back off. The plan was to go back and review their (shoddy) work and start up the process again this spring. Well, spring has sprung and they despite several requests this week, the VSB folks couldn’t give me a straight answer about if or when the review process will resume. I got a lot of word-salad replies that I think said the catchment review has been indefinitely postponed.

      A proper consultation process would have enabled the process to go much more smoothly last spring and parent concerns could have been heard and addressed in a timely manner, and the review—and any changes that resulted from it—could have been completed on schedule. Instead, the whole thing appears to have been a massive waste of time and resources that the VSB can’t afford to be squandering.

      That means families in several Vancouver communities will be going through the lottery process again this spring and facing the prospect of travelling to schools outside their neighbourhoods for kindergarten in the fall. Catchment-boundary changes wouldn’t have stopped this from happening completely but may have reduced the number of families who will be put through it. 

      This isn’t all on the VSB managers. It’s the board chair’s job to ensure processes are in place to make sure trustees have all the information and advice they need to make informed decisions. While some of the new trustees seem to get the importance of public consultation and are pushing hard for better processes, Chair Janet Fraser appears content to go along with whatever managers decide. That’s a failure on her part, and she’s letting down her board as much as she’s letting down the public by allowing the problem to persist.

      I don’t envy the trustees in the hard decisions they’re scheduled to make between now and the end of the school year. Between the controversial facilities plan and the school closures it makes the case for—along with whatever management has up its sleeves in terms of budget proposals and figuring out whether or not to move the Hudson French-immersion program over to Strathcona—they may be in for some sleepless nights. I don’t miss those.

      The least their managers and board chair can do to support the trustees is to ensure that there are meaningful and useful public-consultation processes in place to inform board decisions. Anything less is a failure and makes the trustees' work more difficult than it’s already going to be.

      Trustees have to make decisions that won’t please everyone, but there’s no excuse for not ensuring everyone gets a chance to have their say in the process.

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