Patti Bacchus: The Vancouver school board's new chair is a big win for Green party brand

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      The Vancouver Green party’s Janet Fraser made history this week by becoming the first Green trustee to chair the Vancouver school board (VSB), topping off an impressive year for the Green party brand at both the city and provincial level.

      The nine VSB trustees elected in the October 14 by-election were sworn into office on Monday and chose Fraser to chair the board for its one-year term. The by-election was held to replace the board the B.C. Liberal government fired a year ago.

      New Vancouver school board chair Janet Fraser.

      When she was elected for her first time to the board in 2014, Fraser placed seventh at the polls and held the swing vote for two years, with four Vision Vancouver and four Non-Partisan Association (NPA) trustees on the board. She came under fire for twice casting deciding votes to elect NPA trustees to chair the board but later voted for Vision’s Mike Lombardi to take over the chair from the NPA’s Fraser Ballantyne.

      Fraser voted with the right-leaning NPA in the spring of 2015 to approve a budget that included closing education centres and programs, while the four Vision Vancouver trustees (including me) opposed it. A year later, Fraser joined the Vision trustees in opposing another operating budget that included more cuts, including a death blow to the district’s popular elementary-school band-and-strings program. That made for a majority decision to reject the budget—a move that led to the board’s firing in October 2016.

      Greens topped by-election polls

      Fraser handily topped the polls in the October 14 by-election, followed by the other two Green party candidates: newcomers Judy Zaichkowsky and Estrellita Gonzalez. If the Greens had run more candidates, they’d have had a shot at winning a majority, although it may be that they picked up votes from both NPA and Vision supporters, as no party ran more than five candidates for the nine seats. If that was the case, running more candidates might have diluted their votes enough to knock them down a few spots.

      One thing is certain: Fraser’s election as the chair of the VSB is a historic first for the Green party and comes less than a year after the same thing happened at the park board.

      First-time park board commissioner Michael Wiebe also made history last December after commissioner Erin Shum accused her NPA colleagues of bullying her and voted against her party’s nominee for chair, the NPA’s Casey Crawford. Instead Shum voted for Wiebe, who became the park board’s first Green chair.

      Then, of course, there’s the B.C. Green party’s historic three-seat win in the May 9 provincial election that enabled them to support the B.C. NDP and bring down Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberal government. That gave provincial Green leader Andrew Weaver’s three-MLA caucus outsized influence in the legislature, mirroring the role Fraser played on the VSB from 2014-2016, when she was the swing vote between four Vision Vancouver and four NPA trustees.

      Quite a year

      What does this mean, if anything, for the 2018 civic elections? It’s tough to know.

      Clearly, a lot of people like what the Greens are offering as an alternative to the NPA and Vision at the city level and, to a lesser extent, to both the B.C. Liberals and B.C. NDP at the provincial level. But are they ready to elect a majority of them to actually govern at any level, and does the party even want to govern?

      Vancouver voters—at least the slightly less than 11 percent of them who turned out to vote in the by-election—weren’t confident enough in the Greens to elect their by-election city-council candidate, Pete Fry. Although the NPA’s Hector Bremner won the seat, he did so with only 13,372 votes in a by-election with abysmal voter turnout.

      Bremner’s victory was more a matter of vote splitting on the left and centre, with a crowded field that included Vision Vancouver’s Diego Cardona—a young, new and unknown candidate—OneCity’s Judy Graves, the COPE-endorsed Jean Swanson, and the Greens' Fry. It definitely wasn’t a strong show of support for the tired NPA brand, and despite voters’ frustration with Vision, the NPA lost two of their seats on the VSB while Vision lost one, with the Greens picking up two more and OneCity winning its first seat.

      What I heard loud and clear through the lead-up to the by-election is that Vancouver voters are ready for a change and tired of Vision, but they’re leery of the NPA and its links to the recently ousted B.C. Liberals. They think Vision has lost its way and isn’t working for—or listening to—them anymore. They’re giving the Greens a good look and are willing to vote for at least a few of them, but it’s not clear if they’d support a Green slate that could give them a majority or a Green mayoral candidate.

      It seems many—including me— are still trying to figure out what the Greens really stand for when it comes to actually governing. Voters have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting when they elect an NPA or Vision candidate, but it’s not as clear with the Greens. They're all for environmental sustainability, but council candidate Fry said he’s opposed to building the Broadway subway.

      The Greens are a little like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.

      With elections for mayor, city council, school board, and park board on October 20, 2018, and campaign-finance reform on the front burner, it’s going to be a fascinating year for political watchers and a busy one in the political backrooms.

      If Vision doesn’t renew itself and convince voters it’s earned another term in city hall and a majority at the school board, who will replace them and will we see a split city council with no majority party, like we already have at the VSB and the legislature? Could we end up with a Green mayor and a split council, with the Greens holding swing votes between the NPA and Vision?

      Fraser will be good chair, but Greens could find themselves under pressure

      Fraser will be a good chair. She’s smart, detail-orientated, and calm under pressure. She won’t be stuck being the swing vote on contentious motions, although her Green caucus could find itself under pressure between Vision and OneCity on the left and the NPA on the right.

      Fraser managed to keep everyone guessing on the previous board, voting with the NPA on some issues and with Vision on others.

      With the NPA down to just two VSB seats, the Greens will feel pressure from Vision’s Joy Alexander, Allan Wong and Ken Clement, along with OneCity Vancouver’s Carrie Bercic, to advocate for students and ensure the NDP government delivers on its education promises.

      The two remaining NPA trustees, Fraser Ballantyne and Lisa Dominato, will argue that the board should make its hard choices and stop asking for more funding. The Green’s response may reveal what a lot of voters are still trying to figure out: can the Greens be counted on to govern consistently as progressives or are they neoliberals who like to kayak in pristine waters and eat organic food?

      While Fraser’s two-year record on the VSB didn’t point to any obvious conclusions, she made her decisions carefully and listened respectfully and attentively to all input and points of view. She put a lot of time and effort into her duties and put students at the forefront of her decision-making, although adult-education students may beg to differ.

      Greens aren’t only ones celebrating historic wins

      OneCity Vancouver’s Bercic made history too, becoming the first in her party to win a seat at any level of government. She campaigned in the by-election on a commitment to be a strong advocate for Vancouver’s students, and she will no doubt be bringing lots of advocacy motions to the board table.

      Vision and OneCity share a lot of values, and Vision trustees will support Bercic’s motions. The NPA trustees, Ballantyne and first-timer Dominato, won’t be inclined to do the same, which will leave the three Greens to decide whether Bercic’s motions—or any that Vision brings forward—pass or not.

      The three Vision trustees—Wong, who is serving his seventh term on the board; Clement, back for his third term; and Alexander, now in her second term—are all strong advocates who won’t shy away from holding the new government accountable for its election promises and ensuring it understands what Vancouver students need in order to succeed. They’ll push Fraser to do the same on behalf of the board she now represents as chair.

      A "special advisor" enters the equation

      Making this equation more complex is that the new board will working be alongside (or perhaps beneath) “special advisor” Dianne Turner.

      When B.C. Liberal education minister Mike Bernier fired the board in 2016 for not passing its budget on time (although he chose to fire the board eight hours before it was actually going to approve the budget—apparently, never is better than late in some cases), he appointed Turner, a former Vancouver high-school principal and superintendent of the Delta school board, to serve as an appointed “official trustee”.

      In a surprising move, the B.C. NDP’s new education minister, Rob Fleming, appointed Turner to stay on as a special advisor to the new board. As far as I know, this is the first time a B.C education minister has appointed a special advisor to a brand-new board. Last Monday, Turner sat herself at the board table with the new trustees at their inaugural meeting, signalling that she plans to make herself seen and heard.

      Now, without getting too deep into the weeds, recall that the B.C. Liberals ordered several reviews and “forensic audits” of the VSB over the years, all suggesting that the VSB should quit advocating for students and focus more on “stewardship".

      I’ve been known to go on about how good, effective stewardship means advocating for the needs of the students and families and not closing schools and selling off land to cover provincial-funding shortfalls. It means taking care of the public’s assets to make sure they’re protected for future generations. The former government had different ideas and pressured the VSB to close schools and sell land—their idea of stewardship, I suppose, but certainly not mine.  

      I suspect Fleming saw an opportunity to make his life as education minister easier by keeping Turner in Vancouver, where she can “advise” the board to stick to its knitting instead of advocating for kids and putting pressure on the new government to keep its many expensive promises.

      We saw a preview of that in Turner’s public congratulatory message to the new trustees: “I look forward to working with them to ensure that we maintain our focus on student excellence, safe schools, and a respectful environment for everyone at the Vancouver school board.”

      What will Fraser and the Greens do when Bercic or the Vision trustees serve notice that they’re bringing advocacy motions to the table? Bercic has already indicated she plans to fulfill an election promise to ask the board to support a motion asking government to stop funding elite private schools. If Turner advises the board to stay in its lane instead and focus on “student excellence”, the NPA will back Turner and Vision will support Bercic. What will the Greens do?

      The VSB has a long and proud history of strong advocacy that’s been so effective that governments have gone to great and expensive lengths to try to muzzle it. Make no mistake—that’s what all those “audits” and investigations were about.

      Turner’s job is to keep the trustees in line and discourage them from asking hard questions that make government uncomfortable—even if the questions need asking. VSB senior managers aren’t the overly sensitive snowflakes some of the investigations may have made them out to be. They’re professionals who don’t need protecting from trustees—except when government is interfering with the board and asking the managers to do things behind their employer’s (the board) back, as the B.C. Liberals did with accessing trustee emails and confidential meeting recordings in 2016 in an apparently fruitless hunt for evidence of trustee misconduct. If government doesn’t ask the senior managers to do things they fear might get them fired, they’ll get along with the trustees just fine and won’t need Turner there to protect them.

      The average voter doesn’t give a fig about most of this, and goodness knows parents want the board to focus on hiring all the good teachers it needs to fill vacancies, getting schools seismically upgraded or built in areas more space is needed and making sure their kids get the attention and support they need to succeed. But they also know that if government isn’t giving the board enough money to do all that, they need the trustees to speak up and advocate on their behalf.

      Voters will be watching as 2018 elections approach

      As we get closer to the 2018 civic and school-board elections, voters will be taking note of whether the Greens tend toward the more progressive activist/advocate side of the table or if they end up siding with the NPA on any contentious votes. If the Horgan government comes through on its promises, we might not find out.

      If it doesn’t, though—and there isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for all the restored teaching positions and other inflationary cost increases—things could get interesting in the spring. Even with more money going into education, it’s possible that increased costs could exceed increased funding for the 2018/19 school year. That could mean more cuts or putting school closures back on the table.

      Bercic and the Vision trustees may vote against any unpopular cuts or closures VSB managers propose to balance the budget. That will leave the Greens—with their historic first-time opportunity to go into an election with one of their own in the chair—with the difficult decision of being seen to vote with the NPA to cut programs or risk getting fired again.

      Let’s hope for the students’ sake we don’t have to see that play out. If it does, though, it may tell voters a lot more about what they need to know concerning the Greens as they head to the polls in 2018.

      Stay tuned.

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