Patti Bacchus: What Vancouver school board candidates are promising—and will they deliver?

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      With just over three weeks until the Vancouver by-election for school board (and one council seat), parties and candidates are starting to release their platforms and promises. This is giving voters and columnists a better idea of what the 19 candidates vying for the Vancouver school board’s (VSB) nine seats are promising to do.

      With a few new players in the race at both the candidate and party level, it’s a bit of a guessing game as to which ones are most likely to deliver on campaign pledges, but it’s worth looking at the record of parties and candidates who have been elected before. Some have better track records than others when it comes to keeping their promises.

      The Vision Vancouver, Green party, and One City platforms share similar themes and ideas. They’re planning to advocate for funding for both operating and capital costs, including money for seismic upgrades and new schools.

      That will be welcome news to Vancouver parents who’ve grown weary of annual budget cuts and those anxiously waiting for long-overdue upgrades to schools that engineers have identified as being at high risk of significant structural damage in an earthquake. With horrific reports coming out of Mexico this week about dead and injured schoolchildren trapped under the rubble in an earthquake-damaged school, I suspect many parents will want to elect trustees who will focus on getting all the at-risk schools upgraded or replaced sooner rather than later.

      Taking a look at party platforms and candidate statements I’ve seen so far, several are promising to restore or increase arts programming. A few specifically promise to restore the elementary band-and-strings program that the NPA voted to cut in the budget that Vision Vancouver and the Green party trustees rejected in 2016. Although the budget didn’t pass, the program was cut by senior management in the absence of a board-approved budget.

      The Vancouver Green party was first out of the gate this campaign with a detailed six-point by-election platform that contains mostly aspirational statements with verbs like “support”, “seek”, “pursue”, “explore,” “continue”, and a few “wills.” It leaves a lot of wiggle room but hits on the key issues, although voters will recall the Green record swings both to the right and left. Without firm commitments, it’s tough to know what they’ll actually do in if they get voted in, making that wiggle room a bit worrisome.

      While the Greens say they’ll “seek to advocate for funding”, some will recall 2014, when newly elected Green trustee Janet Fraser cast the deciding vote for the NPA’s Christopher Richardson to chair the board, surprising many, given that Richardson had placed last on the ballot and the Green platform had aligned more closely to Vision’s pro-advocacy record. When Richardson tearfully resigned a few months later, Fraser again voted for an NPA trustee to chair the board. Full disclosure—the other candidate for chair in both cases was yours truly.

      Given the NPA’s weak advocacy record, Fraser’s vote for two NPA chairs may cause some to question just how hard the Greens will really “seek to advocate”. Fraser voted for a Vision chair—Mike Lombardi—in 2015 and supported Vision advocacy motions through most of her second year on the board, so her record is mixed. The fact that she voted along with Vision to oppose the 2016/17 budget—which included the band-and-strings-program cuts among other unpopular cuts—will win her points with some voters, which will translate into good news for her at the polls on October 14.

      Vision hasn’t released its platform yet but a party official said it will be made public over the next several days—and provided me with a summary of what’s in it.

      It makes specific references to getting provincial funding to get new schools built in Coal Harbour, the Olympic Village, and the River District. The Greens are promising to seek funding for schools downtown and at the Olympic Village as well. That’s an urgent issue for parents in neighbourhoods where schools are overcapacity and families have to enter lotteries to try to get spots in their local schools.

      Vision can claim a strong record on this, having secured funding for new schools at UBC and Crosstown elementary, along with signing off on hundreds of millions in funding for seismic funding and replacement schools. That may be little comfort, however, to the many parents who’ve been waiting too long for upgrades or new schools.

      Vision is promising not to sell off school sites, and it has a record to back them up on that. One City similarly states that it “sees” the VSB holding lands in trust for future generations, repurposing surplus school space instead of selling lands. 

      The Greens say they’ll “seek to resist provincial government pressure to sell VSB lands” and the won’t sell any school sites but will "explore options to generate capital funds for new projects through targeted development of portions of large school sites or non-school sites”.

      The platforms I’ve seen so far from the Greens, Vision, and One City include a lot of good and important promises about engaging with parents, working collaboratively with stakeholders, and putting students at the centre of schools.

      Indigenous education and a commitment to reconciliation get attention from Vision, the Greens, and One City and form a major part of the Coalition of Progressive Electors' sole candidate’s platform, including a plan to create an Aboriginal mini school for grades 8 to 12 students.

      Jamie Lee Hamilton, a candidate running under the “IDEA Vancouver” banner, is proposing the school district create an Indigenous centre of excellence to help Aboriginal students successfully transition to postsecondary programs. 

      Several of the platforms make commitments to restoring arts programming, and some specifically commit to bringing back the elementary band-and-strings program that the NPA trustees voted in favour of cutting in 2016. Independent candidate Adi Pick, a 20-year-old former student leader, told me by email that she’s running to bring back band and strings and to increase student and community involvement.

      There’s quite a bit more in some of the platforms than I’ve touched on here, including better support for students with special needs, support for implementing the district’s sexual-orientation and gender-identity policy, several environmental-sustainability ideas, reopening the Main Street (at Gladstone) adult-education centre, enhanced support for students affected by poverty (including food programs), and more co-located childcare spaces.

      One City’s platform stands out for calling for an end to public funding going to elite private schools and pledging to work with city council to look for “made-in-Vancouver solutions” to ensure teachers and support staff can afford to live in Vancouver.

      I haven’t seen anything yet from the only other independent candidate in the race, Christine Arnold, but I look forward to finding out more about what she hopes to do if she gets elected.

      I contacted the NPA by email to find out if they’ve developed a platform yet, but all I’ve seen so far is their odd “pledge against bullying” announcement this week in which they promised “to treat others with fairness and respect” and speak out whenever they see bullying, and “recognize their ability to make change”.

      I guess if you’ve neglected to advocate for kids and voted to cut their band-and-strings program, you need to find some kind of a distraction, but that was a bizarre one, even by NPA standards. Anyone remember the chicken suit of the 2011 civic-election campaign?

      Voters would be wise to consider that in 2014 the NPA promised to keep neighbourhood schools open but refused to support a Vision-proposed moratorium on school closures just weeks after they were elected, dismissing their own campaign promise as a mere “aspirational goal”.

      The NPA trustees seemed to forget about their three other 2014 promises once they were elected as well: increased instructional time for students, improved access to learning-assessment programs to help non-English-speaking families, and expanded Mandarin courses and programs.

      We heard zilch about those after the 2014 election, so I’d take what the NPA pledges this time with a boulder-sized grain of salt.

      Voters will get a couple of chances to hear candidates talk more about their promises and plans at a couple of upcoming candidate forums. The first is being held by a group called the Institute for Public Education at 7:30 p.m. on October 2 at the Trout Lake Community Centre. The second is at 6:30 p.m. on the following evening, October 3, and it’s being held by the Vancouver District Parents’ Advisory Council at John Oliver secondary school. 

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