06 October 2016

What's happening at the Vancouver School Board?

I don't as a rule write about school and education issues on this blog, but the on going crisis at the Vancouver School Board (my employer) can effect other areas of the city as well. The Park Board shares facilities and fields with the VSB, and instability in one organization can have repercussion at the other. Here is an Op/Ed written by my Green caucus mate VSB Trustee Janet Fraser, on what is happening there:

Opinion: Life as a VSB trustee

What is life like as a Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustee? I usually enjoy working to make education better for our students, but both my first week as a trustee and this most recent week have been very challenging.

In November 2014, nine VSB trustees were elected, four Vision and four NPA, with myself as the lone Green. With this 4-4-1 board, if Vision and NPA disagree, my vote will be the decider. This happened with my very first vote, voting for the board chair. Patti Bacchus had been chairwoman for six years under two Vision majority boards, but I voted for the NPA’s nominee, Christopher Richardson, because Vision no longer had a majority and I wanted to reflect voters’ desire for change. The social media backlash was immediate, and it was clear that it would be difficult to set aside partisan differences to work collaboratively as a board.

Moving forward to this week, in the midst of considering school closures the entire VSB senior management team is on medical leave. I value and respect every member of our senior management team and hope that their leaves resolve well. I am disappointed in myself as I am the vice-chair, and despite holding this leadership position our district has come to this outcome.

At our last board meeting, our Acting Superintendent recommended that the school closure process be suspended. Despite the board’s unanimous approval to move forward with closure consultations for 11 schools, I voted to suspend the process as without our senior management team the VSB does not have the capability to carry out these meetings in any meaningful way. I realize this decision will impact next year’s budget as our available funding is spread ever-more thinly across the district, and that it may also impact our ability to provide temporary accommodation to move forward our seismic program as soon as possible. However, the well-being of our staff cannot be put at risk by unrealistic expectations. I disagree with our Vision chairman Mike Lombardi’s position that the minister’s removal of the 95-per-cent capacity utilization requirement will fundamentally change our Long Range Facility Plan and school closure process. The minister’s announcement still requires a solid case for funding seismic upgrades and that there be the right number of schools for the actual number of students, which to me are essentially the same parameters.

In the near future, a special advisor will submit his report to the minister and WorkSafeBC will investigate allegations in a letter from the B.C. School Superintendents Association that the VSB work environment creates a toxicity that fosters fear and a lack of a sense of safety for those lead educators as the expectations requested of them are unmanageable.

I usually downplay party political affiliations when I write about being a trustee, but I have learned they are always present and I acknowledge that reality here. I work hard to make evidence-based decisions that focus on the best interests of our students, but I cannot get away from the fact that VSB decisions play out in a partisan political arena, at both the municipal and provincial levels. I do not align with any other political party, I do not vote for or against any party, rather I vote for our students and their public education. I am finding it more and more difficult to work collaboratively with my fellow trustees when I know that our work will always be viewed through a political rather than an educational lens.

Trustees have the responsibility to support the success of every student in our district, and right now we must focus on these nearly 50,000 students to ensure their education is not affected by the dysfunction at the board level.

Janet Fraser is a Green Party Vancouver School Board trustee.

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