My first eight months as a Vancouver School Board trustee have been an incredible experience.
My position on our board is unique, as if Vision and NPA trustees vote as caucuses, my vote is the deciding vote. While most of the board’s votes are unanimous, there have been occasions when I was the deciding vote; a heavy responsibility that brings a great deal of public scrutiny.
Such was the case in voting for the board chair. Vancouver voters reshaped our board and I wanted to reflect that change with a new chair, even though Vision trustees did not want change. My votes for Christopher Richardson and Fraser Ballantyne were not an alignment with one party over another, but to show my respect for the electorate and consideration of the best leadership for our district. An example of this is building a better working relationship with the provincial government to complete our remaining 69 seismic projects as quickly as possible. The chair is an important role, setting style and tone, but is still only one vote among nine trustees.
Another case was the proposed four-year moratorium on school closures. Vancouver’s student enrolment continues to decline, and there are huge changes in the numbers of students in different neighbourhoods. We have just started construction of the new downtown International Village elementary school, yet we also have a school with no students enrolled next year. Trustees must also consider the commitment “to determine how to achieve 95-per-cent capacity utilization” made by the previous board to the province in the seismic upgrade agreement. The province considers our current utilization to be 83 per cent. To provide strong educational programs district-wide our board must respond to our ever-changing city. I do not want to close any schools and want to see any space not required for education used for community use.
Every B.C. school board trustee is faced with the challenge of underfunding by the provincial government. Statistics Canada’s most recent figures (2012-13) show B.C. is still the province with the second-lowest average expenditure per student, $12,113; the Canadian average is $12,377. In addition, at 1.2 per cent B.C. had the lowest growth in public K-12 education funding in the five years to 2012-13; the Canadian average was 12.8 per cent.
The inadequate provincial funding made balancing our 2015-16 VSB budget extremely challenging, especially with our $2.7-million share of the province’s “administrative savings.” I voted for a budget that found savings in benefits surplus ($1.95 million) and provincial holdback/leasing ($980,000), increased learning & technology ($520,000), added a psychologist ($80,000), and made cuts to administration ($3.51 million), facilities ($540,000 million) and education ($2.14 million). The cuts to education were very difficult as they include $1.06 million to K-12 teaching and $510,000 to adult education (to align more closely with reduced provincial funding).
The previous board’s decisions to use one-time savings to balance budgets added to our challenge as any one-time savings must be found again in the next budget cycle. For example in 2014-15 $2.5 million was taken from the local capital reserve for operating costs, leaving no funds available from this reserve until 2018-19.
Additionally, this year the education minister appointed a special advisor to review and make recommendations on our district finances. While the minister’s stated aim was to help our board balance our budget, none of the recommendations addressed the 2015-16 budget. However, our board must “read and consider” the 59 recommendations for the VSB, which I will do through the lens of student education and not an accounting spreadsheet.
With the recently passed Bill 11, the minister has increased provincial power and authority while eroding the ability of elected school boards to govern in the best interests of their students. For example, if the minister “believes it is in the public interest,” a directive can be issued to a board, and if the board does not comply they can be dismissed and replaced with an official trustee.
Despite all the challenges, I look forward to working on an ambitious VSB strategic plan that will support success for all our students, including Aboriginal students, those with special needs, and those living in poverty. I look forward to developing a VSB sustainability plan to become the greenest school district in North America. I look forward to this work as I strongly support public education and believe it will provide a bright future for our students, city and province.
Janet Fraser is a Vancouver school trustee representing the Green Party. She has three children in Vancouver’s public schools and has 10 years of PAC leadership experience.