Patti Bacchus: Four-party Vancouver school board bodes well for students

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      Nine Vancouver school board (VSB) trustees-elect are preparing to be sworn into office on October 30 following the October 14 by-election, almost exactly a year after B.C. Liberal government fired the last VSB for refusing to approve a budget that included deep spending cuts.

      The trustees’ first order of business—after swearing their oaths of office—will be electing a chairperson to represent the new board that comprises members from four political parties. With three from Vancouver Greens, three from Vision Vancouver, two from the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), and one from OneCity, there’s no clear majority or even a coalition that points to an obvious outcome on the chair vote.

      It I was a betting woman, I’d put my money of the Green’s Janet Fraser, who was elected for the first time in 2014 and part of the fired board. Fraser topped the by-election polls and her two Green colleagues took second and third spots. That’s a pretty strong vote of confidence in the Green brand from voters, despite dismal turnout of only 10.99 percent of eligible voters for the by-election.

      Carlito Pablo

      That’s no guarantee Fraser will be chair, of course. In 2014, Fraser cast the deciding vote to elect NPA trustee Christopher Richardson as chair, although he’d just squeaked his way on to the board, placing ninth on the ballot. There are four “progressive” trustees on the board—OneCity’s Carrie Bercic and Vision Vancouver’s Joy Alexander, Ken Clement, and Allan Wong—who may push to have someone more progressive than Fraser in the chair to represent the board. They’d likely need the support of one of the NPA trustees for that. It’s possible, as there was no love lost between the NPA’s Fraser Ballantyne and Fraser last term, but Ballantyne has no love for Vision, either. At any rate, it will be interesting to see what happens on October 30.

      Once the chair is elected, the trustees need to pick a vice chair, decide who will chair each of the board’s five standing committees, and assign each trustee liaison schools. The chair is expected to poll the trustees to find out which roles they’re interested in and bring a list of recommended assignments to the next board meeting, which isn’t scheduled until November 27—although the new chair could call a meeting sooner. The trustees will then vote on the recommendations as is, or an amended list.

      Then the real work starts

      Behind the scenes, trustees will be attending a series of briefing workshops to bring them up to speed on a range of files and issues, like privacy legislation and parliamentary procedures. Senior VSB staff typically brief the board on files like the board’s finances, human-resource processes, and capital and seismic projects, while legal and governance experts are usually brought in to provide specific expertise and advice to the incoming trustees—particularly those who haven’t been elected before. There’s a lot to learn for the new folks and usually several binders of information.

      This year may be a bit different as Education Minister Rob Fleming has appointed Dianne Turner to stay on as a "special advisor" to the board. Turner was chosen by the former B.C. Liberal government to serve as an “official trustee” after it fired the board last year. Fleming says Turner will advise on governance, although neither the VSB or the Ministry of Education would tell me if Turner—who is a former VSB high-school principal now on leave from her post as Delta’s superintendent of schools—has the expertise or experience to qualify her to advise an elected board on governance.

      Given that five of the nine trustees have been elected at least once before—or, in Allan Wong’s case, six times—there’s a lot of governance experience on the board and, of course, lots of well-qualified experts in town who are available to come in and advise as needed for a lot less than Turner’s $250,000-plus annual salary-and-benefits package.

      The three Green Party school trustees elected in the recent by-election—Janet Fraser (left), Judy Zaichkowsky, and Estrellita Gonzalez—finished as the top three vote getters.

      Which does raise the question of why Fleming really asked Turner to stay on and how her presence will affect the new board and senior VSB staff.

      I’m betting Fleming and the new provincial government don’t want an outspoken board that’s focused on holding the government to account for spending promises any more than the B.C. Liberals did. While Fleming and Premier John Horgan rallied in support of the trustees after last year’s firing, being in government changes a lot of things.

      Having Turner sitting in on all VSB meetings, including confidential discussions between trustees and their senior staff, means no surprises for Fleming. He’ll be counting on Turner to nudge the trustees away from advocating for funding and toward ensuring they “focus on student excellence, safe schools and a respectful environment for everyone”, as Turner wrote in her news release congratulating the new trustees.

      Fleming is scheduled to meet with the trustees-elect next week, so perhaps he’ll be able to explain his decision to keep Turner around to supervise them.

      It will be interesting to see whether the trustees decide to focus on advocacy, inclusion, addressing teacher recruitment and retention, restoring programs that were cut under the B.C. Liberal government, equity, or any number of priorities included in their election platforms or whether they just agree to take Turner’s advice.

      Help wanted

      Recruiting and retaining teachers is an urgent issue as Vancouver continues to lose teachers to other districts and retirement faster than it can hire them, leaving many vacancies still unfilled. The new board also needs to hire a new superintendent after former superintendent Scott Robinson left the district in June. It sounds like Turner has already come up with a short list of candidates and may have whittled it down even further, leaving the final decision up to the board.

      Folks in the field tell me some good, qualified superintendent candidates were scared off by the daunting challenge of coming into a district with not only so much upheaval and so many staff vacancies—which is stressful enough—but with the added and unprecedented task of having to forge a relationship with a new board under Turner’s supervision. She’ll be sitting in on all meetings—both public and confidential—and reporting to the minister. Turner is actually a superintendent herself, so that makes for a particularly awkward situation.

      It’s also awkward—and, in my opinion, inappropriate—as superintendents need to advise their boards on sensitive issues that sometimes involve negotiations with the provincial government. There can be some strategy involved, and in my experience there needs to be space for frank and open discussions between the superintendent and the board. That won’t happen with the minister’s advisor sitting in the room, taking notes and reporting to him.

      Keep in mind this is really just an interim board that will barely have time to get its seating plan sorted out before the 2018 campaign revs up, and the incoming superintendent may face a differently composed board a year from now, an uncertainty that may deter some candidates from deciding to sign on.

      Show them the money

      The new board will just get through its orientation briefings to discover it has to start planning for the 2018/19 budget. Despite the NDP government’s promises of lots more money for education, VSB managers will warn the board there are more cost increases coming and no assurance of government funding to cover them.

      We won’t know exactly what that’s going to look like until the provincial budget is released in February, but with so much money needed to restore class size and composition numbers, there may not be a lot left to prevent further cuts in other areas or to keep campaign promises about restoring programs. That could mean some tough, unpopular decisions for the new trustees just as they’re heading into an election campaign right after voting on the budget in April.

      Seismic stresses

      It looks like government is ready to fund school seismic upgrades and, even better, is willing to pay for new replacement schools instead of making the cheapest upgrades possible to old, poorly maintained buildings. But there are some big, long-overdue high-school projects that are going be tough to complete without disruption and displacement of students and staff. How do you upgrade or rebuild an entire high school in cases where you can’t build a new one on site while the old one is used until completion?

      Sometimes you can get around that by phasing work and moving classes about and using some portables, like the board did for the upgrades at Vancouver Technical School and Kitsilano secondary, but that may not work on other sites, and it’s an unpleasant experience for those teaching and learning through the construction process, which can take years.

      Before the last board was fired, VSB managers proposed closing a couple of high schools (Britannia and Gladstone) to local enrollment and using them for seismic swing space. That would mean that an entire school population could be relocated to either site while their school was upgraded. It was an unpopular idea—to put it mildly—in the Britannia and Gladstone communities, and the new trustees will need to consider more creative ideas (psst: call me, I have some) in order to get some of those long-delayed projects done.

      Repairing management-union relationships

      The new board needs to work fast on repairing relationships between senior managers and the VSB unions. The controversial VSB “bullying” reports smeared not only the former trustees (including yours truly) but also took similarly nasty swipes at VSB union representatives, citing “anonymous witnesses” who claimed the employee groups “engaged in a disrespectful and verbally abusive manner” toward senior staff.

      That’s nonsense, at least as far as I know, and the unions spoke out against the flawed process and supported the trustees in a news release, rejecting the reports’ allegations. Relationships between management and the unions took a turn for the woeful after that and are in dire need of repair if the district is to run smoothly.

      My eight years on the board taught me the best decisions are the ones made carefully and with advice from people who work with students on the frontlines. That only happens when information is shared freely and everyone at the table is treated with respect. With the prospect of money flowing back into the system, it’s critical that it be invested where it will benefit students most. The new trustees need good advice on that, and they need to listen carefully to what teachers and support staff have to say, not just what management and administrators tell them.

      Tough work ahead, but cautious optimism

      Although it has some hard work cut out for it, I’m optimistic about the new board’s exciting opportunity to make the most of having a new government that actually supports public education. With only two NPA trustees back on the board, there’s a lot of room for the progressive Vision Vancouver and OneCity trustees to steer the board in a positive direction.

      The Green party is a bit of a wild card and tends to blow left and right, but Fraser’s style is to listen, consult, gather information, and make decisions carefully. In the two years we served on the VSB together, I observed Fraser shift from a conservative approach to a much more progressive one as she learned more about the issues facing the VSB. That bodes well for the year ahead, and I expect she’ll agree with the Vision and OneCity trustees on most key issues and they’ll be able drive the district in a positive direction during the short stint they have in office. I have no idea about the two new Green trustees and whether they’re progressive or not, but we’ll find out soon enough.

      I wish the new trustees the best of luck—it’s hard work, and it’s important and worth every bit of the effort. Vancouver’s kids are counting on them, and I’ll be watching to be sure they don’t let them down.

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