Patti Bacchus: School trustees need to prove they matter

Expensive hotels, Christmas-shopping expeditions, buffets, and rude communications staff don't inspire confidence

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      Hundreds of school trustees are gathering at Vancouver’s Hyatt Regency Hotel this week for the B.C. School Trustees Association’s (BCSTA) annual “academy”, and we’re all picking up the tab.

      While the BCSTA is, for all intents and purposes, a public body funded by taxpayers, its media representative told me she’s too busy to tell me how many trustees are attending the conference this year, or how much they’re paying to do so. I first asked on Monday morning and followed up on Tuesday and Wednesday. She told me by phone Wednesday that she was too busy with event planning to look up the registration fee for me and then hung up the phone.

      Except she didn’t fully hang it up. I had my earbuds in for our conversation, and I heard how "busy" she was for the 15 minutes it took for her to realize she hadn’t actually ended the call. Apparently, very busy event planning includes a lot of giggling with a coworker, discussion about the joys of flying on helijets to Victoria, and complaining about having to get around to writing a news release.

      Ironically, today’s pre-conference workshop for trustees is on “Improving Media Relations to Reach Your Community”. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

      The BCSTA gathering would be fine if trustees were here to discuss pressing issues in education and learn about how to improve learning conditions in the classrooms, in a meaningful and measureable way. I attended six of them when I was a trustee, and that was not my experience.

      The BCSTA is the umbrella group that represents B.C.’s elected school boards. There are similar organizations in some other provinces, or at least in the ones that still have school boards. The annual academies are expensive affairs that are paid for from school-district operating budgets (via trustee registration fees) that, in turn, get their money from per-students funding grants from the provincial government, which gets its money from you and me.

      Membership fees paid by school boards

      B.C.’s cash-strapped school boards also pay steep fees to be members of the BCSTA. The Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) annual membership costs about $90,000 a year, which is roughly what a full-time teacher costs, if you include benefits. When I was still a trustee, we voted to withdraw from the BCSTA, as we felt that the money would be better spent on a teacher or student support worker. The VSB has since rejoined and apparently believes the $90,000 membership fee is a good investment of your money. Maybe it is, or maybe it’s not.

      The registration fee for this year’s academy is $10,000 for each trustee. Just kidding. The BCSTA refuses to say how much it is (see above). You also can’t access many parts of the BCSTA website without a member password, although the public pays for the website and the people who run it, and it contains information about public education. I’m guessing it’s actually in the $500 range per trustee, and districts pay it, not the trustees themselves.

      Whatever. The costs of getting to downtown Vancouver from far-flung districts will be also borne by school district budgets, as will hotels, taxis, and other related travel costs and meals that aren’t included at the academy.

      The academies are not a bad idea, in theory. We can all benefit from professional development and meeting with peers to share ideas and information. The academies can be especially valuable for new trustees, although they’re also popular with those who have put in decades on their boards (that reminds me: I need to write about the need for trustee term limits one of these days).

      Sessions on governance—from actual professionals like Eli Mina, who is presenting at the academy—are informative and useful for new trustees, although much of that info could be delivered via a less-expensive webinar.

      The first time I went to a BCSTA academy, in 2008, I wondered why anyone would schedule a three-day conference just as the hectic holiday season was kicking off. I soon got an explanation, when I sat down next to a trustee from a Fraser Valley district, who was staying at the hotel. I grumbled about how inconvenient it was to attend a three-day conference at such a busy time of year and he said, “Oh, the whole point is for everyone to come into town and do their Christmas shopping and go out to dinner.”

      That might explain why they hold the academy at a high-end downtown hotel instead of a more affordable and convenient one near the airport. It might also explain how sparsely attended many of the sessions are at times, despite how many trustees are registered.

      What’s not on the agenda is what matters

      The main reason I dreaded these tedious affairs and their abundant buffets was the irrelevance of much of the content. I found the topics on the light side (does anyone need a 90-minute workshop on how to tweet?) and hoped for more important, albeit difficult, dialogue on issues that were truly pressing in our school districts.

      Although it’s good to see that this year’s academy agenda includes a keynote address by environmental activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki, given that the climate crisis is the biggest issue threatening students’ futures, it’s ironic (or hypocritical) that so many trustees will travel long distances—many by air—to hear her.

      Beyond that topic, this year’s agenda is devoid of scheduled sessions to discuss the most urgent issues in our public schools. On the other hand, the organizers have arranged for a Conservative MP from Alberta to fly in and talk about being a parent of a child on the autism spectrum—because, apparently, we don’t have any parents in B.C. who can speak about that (we actually have many).

      If you thought a gathering of hundreds of school trustees would be an excellent opportunity for discussions about resolving the dispute with teachers over a new contract, after the last contract expired almost five months ago, I’d agree with you. Unfortunately, the academy organizers seem to have thought differently.

      There’s zilch on the agenda to talk about how to attract and retain teachers and how to cover unfilled vacancies without having a negative impact on students. The same goes for the ongoing shortage of qualified special education support workers. Despite this year’s academy title of “Growing together, planting the seeds for inclusion”, there’s also nothing about ensuring that kids with special needs don’t get sent home when there’s a staffing shortage, and how to make sure kids aren’t still being locked in “seclusion rooms”.

      I can’t see anything on the agenda about how the new education-funding model will affect districts, or whether a move to a “prevalence” model for special-education funding is good or bad for students. Ditto for a session about education funding and what to do about the fact that B.C. school districts get among the lowest per-student funding in the country.

      Are trustees still relevant, and do they care if they are?

      You’d think trustees would be really interested in talking about how to remain relevant, or remain at all, although I don’t see much chance for that on the agenda either.  

      A look eastward does not bode well for the future of elected school boards. Several provinces have abolished elected school boards, including Quebec (2019), Nova Scotia (2018), Prince Edward Island (2015), and New Brunswick (1996). Newfoundland and Labrador have just one school board. Manitoba may be next, as it awaits the results of a review that may spell the end of elected school boards or an amalgamation that could result in fewer of them.

      B.C. school boards increasingly seem to be relinquishing their leadership roles to their district managers and becoming less accountable and responsive to those they are elected to serve. The BCSTA even advises trustees not to speak to the news media unless they’re the chair—and in some cases tells trustees not to engage the public on social media.

      Some school boards have adopted codes of conduct prohibiting trustees from speaking publicly against board decision they disagree with or saying much at all to the public. If you want voters to doubt your relevance, refusing to speak to reporters or engage the public on social media is an excellent way to do that.

      School boards matter, if they’re doing the job right

      I spent eight years as an elected school trustee, six of those as chair of the VSB. I took the job and the role seriously and worked hard it at. When a member of the public or a reporter asked me a question, I did my best to give them a full and timely answer. I also insisted on meaningful public consultation prior to making important decisions.

      I made sure the people who would be affected by decisions I was voting  on had a chance to share their perspectives with me and my colleague, before we voted.

      For all their shortcomings and frustrations of being at the bottom of the political food chain, school boards can be and should be important democratic bodies that ensure local values and priorities are reflected in decision-making.

      I’d be sorry to lose them, but I fear that if B.C.’s elected school trustees don’t reclaim their authority and their roles, and refuse to speak out publicly, most will simply shrug off, or even applaud, when government eventually decides they’re more trouble than they are worth and abolishes them. They need to pay attention to what’s important to students and make sure those topics are on the agenda at their gatherings.

      It’s not enough to cash a cheque each month and rubber-stamp management recommendations without ensuring the public is well represented in board decisions.

      Trustees should start by asking whether the BCSTA gatherings at high-end hotels are being used as effectively as they could be, or whether the money spent on them could be better used in classrooms.

      School boards matter, but only when those serving on them take the work seriously and spend their time—and our money—on what matters.

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