Patti Bacchus: Should the Vancouver school board be less partisan?

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      School boards make decisions how public money gets spent, where and how kids get educated, and control a lot of publicly owned land and buildings. That’s inherently political but does it have to be partisan?

      A Vancouver parent group called the Parent Advocacy Network wrote the new education minister, Rob Fleming in July and told him: “Parents would prefer to see less partisanship within the [Vancouver school] board in order to enable elected trustees to deliberate and act for the best interests of student learning, first and foremost.”

      On the surface, it’s hard not to agree. But let’s look a little deeper.

      Under Vancouver’s at-large system, electors can vote for up to nine school trustees to represent the city as a whole—as opposed to other jurisdictions where trustees represent a specific ward or area. Can partisanship realistically be removed from school board governance? And should it?

      It’s a nice idea. I love the concept of moving to a postpartisan democracy at all levels of government. Watch a debate in the legislature, parliament, or city council. Or look at what goes in in Congress to the south of us. Partisanship is kind of unseemly and seems antithetical to thoughtful decision making. What’s not to like about the idea of a group of thoughtful, well-informed, nonpartisan adults sitting around a table deciding what’s best for student learning.?

      And why don’t we do it?

      Well actually, we do. It’s just that we may have very different opinions of what putting student learning first means and how we define partisanship.

      One trustee may believe the best thing for students is keeping neighbourhood schools open despite declining enrollment, while others may believe consolidating schools and trimming budgets wherever possible is the best approach. Some might believe keeping the school board’s lands for future generations is the best thing for future students, while others may believe strongly any surplus lands should be sold now and the proceeds used to help today’s students.

      They’re all putting students at the forefront of their decision making, but clearly they have different ideas about the best way to do that.

      Political parties—sometimes referred to as electoral organizations—generally reflect their candidates' and supporters' values and provide voters with “brands” to choose from and a shortcut to figuring out what individual trustees stand for.

      I’ve seen and participated in Vancouver school board iterations when trustees worked effectively across party lines because they shared values. Recent-ish examples include the 2002–05 board that saw a Coalition of Progressive Electors majority work collaboratively with the board’s sole Green trustee—Andrea Reimer, now a Vancouver city councillor—while the one Non-Partisan Association trustee served in an opposition-type role.

      After the 2008 VSB election, no party held a majority of seats. There were four Vision Vancouver trustees (including me), three COPE, and two NPA trustees. The Vision and COPE trustees worked as a coalition to implement a progressive agenda that put students and vibrant neighbourhood schools first. Working side by side, we were able to advocate effectively for funding, keep schools open despite strong government pressure, secure hundreds of millions of seismic-upgrade funding, and attract topnotch senior managers and have excellent working relationships with them.

      The key to making those relationships work—whether it was the COPE-Green 2002–05 version or the 2008–11 Vision-COPE relationship—was having shared values about what is truly in the best interests of students.

      We agreed that well-funded neighbourhood schools fully staffed to meet the needs of every student—regardless of how profound and extensive those needs are—was critical. We agreed that all students deserve to be in seismically safe, well-maintained schools, and that closing schools in lower-income neighbourhoods harms students and their families. We agreed to stand up to the B.C. Liberal government’s underfunding of education and policies that undermined the quality of the public school system.

      We often found ourselves at odds with our NPA colleagues on issues like budget cuts, advocacy, or school closures.

      That wasn’t partisanship—that was a clash of values.

      The most recent elected VSB comprised three parties: Vision Vancouver with four seats, the NPA with four, and the Vancouver Green party with one.

      With no clear majority, decision making was bumpy and crude, as there wasn’t the same opportunity to work with management staff to smooth out differences in proposed motions before they went to a vote. Staff became anxious, not knowing from day to day if they had the support of majority of the board, and feeling caught in the middle of trustees who had different values and opinions of what it meant to put student learning at the forefront of decision making.

      Being a member of that board was an unpleasant experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat. It was much less effective at implementing an agenda to support student learning than previous ones I’d be on were. Toward the end of our run—in the months preceding our firing for refusing to approve a budget with more cuts—I began to question what value, if any, we were bringing to the students and communities we served. The board’s composition was clearly making it dysfunctional.

      The controversial 2017 Goldner report into allegations of a toxic workplace at the VSB noted: “Being elected on a party platform need not lead to disruption in board function. Also, in circumstances in which the majority of board trustees represent a single party the disruption has been minimal. However, this was not the case with the election of the most recent nine-member board.”

      While I disagree with many of Goldner’s findings, I agree with that one.

      The idea of a board representing several different parties or even some independents seems like a nice idea but it’s an ineffective way to govern a complex school system unless there’s a party or coalition with a clear majority of seats. In other words, parent groups and voters should be careful what they wish for—and who they vote for and why.

      Political parties in an at-large electoral system

      The way we elect school trustees in B.C. is a bit of a dog’s breakfast in terms of representation. Some districts elect (or in many cases, acclaim) individual trustees by area. An example of this is Nicola-Similkameen school district #58, which comprises seven trustees elected to serve three electoral areas—the city of Merritt (three trustees), Princeton and “Area H” of Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (three trustees) and what are called electoral areas M and N of Thompson-Nicola Regional District (one trustee).

      Many B.C. districts do this, including school district 83, North Okanagan-Shuswap. It's being governed by an “official trustee”appointed by the former B.C. Liberal government after it fired the elected board, which more or less imploded in the spring of 2016 after three of its member resigned.

      Voters in district 83 elect seven trustees, but only vote for the one—or in a couple of areas, two—seats for their electoral area. That makes for a much simpler ballot than Vancouver voters face, where they can check off up to nine candidates from a lengthy alphabetical list of party-affiliated candidates and independents.

      The pros and cons of at-large vs electoral areas

      The upside of voting for a trustee, or two or three, in your electoral area is that it’s a lot easier to assess a small number of candidates and determine if they share your values and would make decisions you believe would be in the best interest of your community, whether they’re affiliated with a party or not. In a city like Vancouver, that would be the equivalent of having a ward system.

      It’s also a lot easier for a candidate to campaign in one smaller area and get their message out about what they stand for than it is for an candidates running at-large, who must campaign across a whole city.

      As a born and raised Vancouverite who majored in political science at university and as the VSB’s longest-serving board chair, I’ve spent of lot of time considering if there’s a better way to elect trustees. Our at-large system is the devil we know, but a different one could be more problematic. It’s a bit like what Churchill said about democracy—it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others.

      Doing away with partisan affiliations in the at-large system would leave voters with a long list of names and a ton of homework to figure out what each stands for. The party affiliation provides a Coles Notes–type shortcut for voters. Most parties provide election platforms that provide a fairly clear idea about what the candidates intend to do if they’re elected.

      If we’re stuck with parties, can trustees drop the partisanship once they’re elected?

      They can to an extent—exhibits one and two being the COPE-Green board of 2002–05 and the COPE-Vision board of 2008–11. Parties with similar values and election platforms can and have worked together by focusing on shared goals and putting any differences aside.

      Where it gets difficult is when there are significantly conflicting sets of values, as there are between the progressive parties (Vision, COPE, One City), and the right-leaning NPA. The Green party sits somewhere in the middle and is unpredictable, sometimes swinging to the political right and sometimes leaning left.

      Is conflict with someone who has starkly different political values partisanship? No.

      It’s hard being a big-city trustee who wants to get anything done

      Many of the big urban school boards experience conflict at the board table and with senior managers. Whether it’s the Edmonton Catholic School Board, the York Region District School Board, the York Catholic School Board or Canada’s largest—the Toronto District School Board (TDSB)—conflict and controversy at the top levels seem almost inevitable.

      Trustees work at the bottom of the political food chain with few real powers but a lot of responsibilities. In big cities they’re under tremendous public pressure to fulfill campaign commitments and stand up for communities with limited power to do so. And without the benefit of political staff, they can find themselves up against a large and powerful bureaucracy that has plans and goals of its own.

      A few decades ago, I worked for a suburban school board where senior staff talked openly about keeping the trustees busy with ribbon cuttings and school carnivals to prevent them from “playing with the trains” and getting meaningfully involved with decision making. Trustees who tried to advance their election commitments to improve student learning—the way their supporters and communities wanted them to—were sometimes thwarted by seasoned bureaucrats.

      Then there’s the provincial government, which controls the purse strings, contract negotiations, the curriculum, and most of the rules, and gives directions to school superintendents who otherwise report to their boards and are employees of the board. It’s tough to get things done and like-minded trustees have to stick together to have any influence.

      It’s even tougher if the provincial government starts directly meddling in district affairs, as the previous B.C. Liberal government did with the VSB.

      That happens on boards with and without party affiliations.

      Consider the state of the TDSB (Toronto) in 2015, when an investigator found that the board’s director of education (the equivalent of a B.C. superintendent of schools) had “participated in 'destructive attacks' against trustees who have criticized her in an effort to silence their legitimate questions about the way taxpayers' money is spent, says an investigator appointed to review the board”.

       In response to that conflict, the Ontario education minister appointed a governance panel to consult with the public and make recommendations regarding structural and procedural changes to address what was referred to as a “culture of fear” at the TDSB.

      As the VSB’s longest-serving chair, I was interviewed as part of that review as they wanted to know if things were working better in Vancouver’s at-large system. I didn’t think that was necessarily the case—Toronto’s problems didn’t stem from the way trustees are elected and neither do Vancouver’s. The review’s report noted “Our research indicated that the Vancouver District School Board was experiencing almost the very same governance challenges as the TDSB. Ultimately, we concluded that the method of electing trustees – by ward or at large – has no direct correlation with an effective governance structure.”

      Governing large urban school boards is challenging. Period. Democracy is messy and inefficient. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge and accept that instead of trying to fix it.

      What might be interesting to those hoping to see the end of municipal political parties at the VSB is the TDSB review report’s observations about that board, where the 22 trustees are elected to represent wards and are not aligned with political parties.

      “Cooperation between trustees is too often focused on making deals for mutual support.” It also referred to the “problem of ward fiefdoms” and said “the ward structure has also led to a number of trustees running in tandem with city council candidates. Some trustees boast that they are allowed to decide on school programs for ‘their schools’. Some have a direct say in procurement for their schools, right down to the colour of the pencils. Trustees, in particular, are prone to thinking of the interests of ‘my’ schools and ‘my’ constituents rather than the interests of the whole system.

      “At the same time, the school leadership is under severe stress as a result of the infighting at the board level and the ever-increasing intrusiveness of some, but not all, trustees,” the controversial Wilson report notes. “The level of trust between the senior administration and the trustees is low…there has, to date, been no attempt to review the board’s governance model to remove the trustees from day-to-day operational decision making and to prevent interference, on the part of many trustees, in the operation of their schools in their wards.”

      As I was saying, the devil you know. The VSB by-election is on October 14. 

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