Patti Bacchus: A citizen's guide to the Vancouver school board election

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      Psst. Did you know there’s a VSB by-election?

      With less than a week to go until the October 14 Vancouver by-election, the guessing game’s on among the city’s chattering political classes. And no, it’s not about who will win the city council seat up for grabs or who will form the Vancouver school board, it’s about how low voter turnout may go.

      I think it could be as low as 10 per cent, and maybe lower. When I’ve been out and about over the last week, I’ve been asking folks if they’re planning to vote and most don’t know there’s a by-election. That’s depressing for democracy enthusiasts but for those who vote, it means their votes will really count this time.

      Should you use all your votes or just vote for candidates you really want to win?

      Voters get up to 10 votes this time—one for a city council seat and nine for the school board. People sometimes ask me if they should use all their votes or just vote for the people they really want to win.  

      They say “I like so and so, and also so and so for the VSB, but who else should I vote for?” Well that depends. If you really want your top candidates to win, just vote for them. That’s called plumping. If you cast your other votes, you could push one of your lesser choices into the lead ahead of your favourites—possibly bumping them off the top nine spots that will form the board.

      It’s also why parties don’t run full slates. They want to concentrate supporters’ votes to ensure they win as many seats as possible without diluting their support across too many candidates. In the 2014 school board election Vision Vancouver ran seven candidates for the VSB—more than it had ever run previously. (Disclosure—I was one of the candidates.) I have no doubt that cost Vision Vancouver its majority position and resulted in the split board.

      Four of us were elected and three weren’t, and the fifth-highest Vision Vancouver candidate—Ken Clement — missed making it on to the board by 256 votes. If there had been only five or six Vision candidates to choose from instead of seven, I believe at least five would have been elected and Vision would have held on to the majority. It's running five candidates this time. Smart. So is the Non-Partisan Association (NPA). Both parties are probably telling their supporters to just cast five votes to increase their chances of forming a majority.

      Vote—and vote wisely

      Voters got a chance to hear the VSB by-election candidates this week at two all-candidates’ forums. One was held by the Institute for Public Education (B.C.) at Trout Lake Community Centre and the second was organized by the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) and held at John Oliver secondary.

      Turnout for both was light—I counted about 30 people at the IPE forum and about 70 at the DPAC’s, and there were few surprises. What stood out for me was how similar the candidates’ positions were on issues that dominated the forums: the need to recruit and retain teachers to restore class size and composition, the need to seismically upgrade schools and build some new ones, the need to build a positive relationship with the new provincial government and the VSB senior management team, the need to improve outcomes for Indigenous students and fulfill the board’s commitment to reconciliation, and a commitment to restore programs last were cut under the B.C. Liberal government.

      An uninitiated observer could be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much variation between the candidates and party positions, but there is.

      My well-initiated and admittedly biased ears noticed the priority new NPA candidate Julian Prieto put on balancing the VSB budget. The last elected board was fired by the Christy Clark government last year for refusing to balance a budget that included millions of dollars in cuts that directly affected students. That decision to oppose the budget (Vision and Greens opposed the budget and the NPA voted for it) was supported by the DPAC and several VSB employee groups, and was met with a standing ovation by a huge crowd in a school gym on the night of the vote.

      The four NPA trustees voted for the budget, despite deep staffing cuts and the death blow it dealt to the popular elementary band and strings program and the massive public opposition to it. Given Prieto’s statements at the forums, it sounds like he and the rest of “the NPA 5”, as they’re calling themselves this time, will vote for balanced budgets no matter what they take away from kids. Keep that in mind at the polling booth.

      With its dismal record on even attempting to keep its campaign promises—recall the NPA’s 2014 pledge to stop school closures, increase instruction time, and expand Mandarin programs—it’s no surprise it's focusing this time on “changing the tone” at the VSB, pledging not to bully executive-level staff, and balancing the budget. They don’t talk much about students—they seem to be focusing in a balanced budget and getting along with senior bureaucrats.

      There’s not much to differentiate the Vision Vancouver and OneCity candidates. They’re all strong on advocacy and putting students at the forefront of decision making, recruiting and retaining teachers, getting on with seismic upgrades, and building new schools where needed and forging a good working relationship with the new B.C. government. Vision has a proven track record while this is the first time OneCity’s run candidates. Both of them—Carrie Bercic and Erica Jaaf—spoke well at the forums and came across as well informed, sincere, and passionate about the importance of public education.

      The Green party takes similar positions to Vision and OneCity, but its two new candidates—Estrellita Gonzalez and Judy Zaichkowsky—came across at the forums as kind of all over the map and not well informed about VSB issues, which surprised me. The Greens' Janet Fraser, who was elected in 2014 and held the board’s swing vote between Vision and the NPA, performed very well at both forums.

      The sole Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) candidate, Diana Day, focused her forum responses primarily on support for Indigenous students and programs, including her desire to establish an Aboriginal mini school for Grade 8 to 12 students.

      IDEA Vancouver candidate Jamie Lee Hamilton also focused on the need to increase the number of Indigenous students who successfully transition to a postsecondary program after graduation—an important goal. Hamilton also ventured into the sensitive topic of the new board having to work with a “special advisor” appointed by the education minister, noting that it’s an unprecedented situation in B.C.

      Most of the candidates acknowledged the VSB’s immediate need to recruit good teachers to fill its many vacancies and hanging on to the ones it has, when they can easily get jobs in other districts. That makes it important to elect a board that can restore relationships between management and employee groups, and especially teachers. When Vision held a majority on the VSB, we prioritized collaboration with teachers and support staff via their union representatives, including open sharing of information. With reports that this has fallen apart now, restoring those relationships is crucial if the VSB wants teachers to come and work here.

      Look to whom the teachers’ unions endorsed to determine which candidates are most likely to work well with them. The Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association is endorsing the Vision and One City candidates and the secondary teachers are endorsing Vision Vancouver and OneCity candidates along with the Greens' Janet Fraser. Keep that in mind as you go to the poll station.

      I was also particularly impressed by the youngest candidate in the race—Adi Pick—who is running as an independent. I first met Pick when she was in high school at Magee and served in some student leadership roles and was her class valedictorian. At 20 years old, she spoke well at both forums, bringing a fresh perspective to the role of trustee. While it’s always a tough slog for independent candidates to win in an at-large voting system, I suspect that anyone who has heard Pick speak for more than a couple of minutes will think about voting for her.

      Don’t squander this opportunity

      It’s a hopeful time for public education with a new government in place that’s pledged to make education a priority. It’s important to elect a progressive board that can work respectfully and collaboratively with the provincial government and local stakeholders to make this most of this long-overdue opportunity.

      The VSB needs a board that will focus on ensuring every student—regardless of their needs or background—has the opportunities and supports they need to thrive and be successful in school. They also need to be effective advocates to ensure the new government keeps its promises and prioritizes spending on public education.

      The reality is there will be many competing demands on the provincial treasury, and the VSB will need to hold the government to its promises.

      The new board will also have the opportunity to hire a new superintendent and fill many senior positions and direct that team to put students first and be accountable and responsive to communities. It will need to make Vancouver what former board chair and Vision Vancouver candidate Mike Lombardi calls “a go-to district” where teachers, support staff, and managers want to work.

      I’ll be voting for candidates who have proven records of advocating for students and working respectfully and collaboratively with stakeholder groups to make decisions that reflect community values. I’ll vote for a new one or two who’ve clearly stated they will put students first—even if that means asking hard questions that make senior bureaucrats uncomfortable.

      I’ll vote for candidates who will work tirelessly to get schools seismically upgraded so we don’t have a preventable tragedy like the one we just saw in Mexico. I’ll vote for candidates who include students, parents, communities, and employee groups in decision making—not those who will simply rubber-stamp management decisions.

      I won’t be voting for candidates who will pass a budget no matter how destructive it is for kids and who will put their relationship with the district’s highest-paid managers ahead of those who work on the front lines.

      I may not use all my votes—I might “plump” to give the best candidates a better chance at taking the top spots and forming a majority.

      Use your vote wisely folks—with low turnout each vote counts more than ever.

      And keep in mind this great quote from OneCity VSB candidate Erica Jaaf: “Politics is how we choose to take care of each other.”

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