Education In Vancouver: A Look Back At 2016

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It’s been a huge year for education in British Columbia.

When we talk about public education in Vancouver this past year, many would say turmoil between the Vancouver School Board and the Ministry of Education heated up when Vancouver School Board trustees were given an operating budget which included nearly 20 million dollars worth of cuts.

The law requires school boards to pass a balanced budget each year, but this year the trustees decided to send a message to the minister by refusing to do so.

Former Vancouver School Board Trustee Patti Bacchus says after years of making difficult decisions on education in the district, enough was enough.

“This budget proposal included a number of items that would have affected students directly to make up what was then a 25-million-dollar shortfall. By the end of June, it had widdled down to just under 20-million-dollars, but keep in mind that came on the heels of about 80-million-dollars of accumulated shortfalls of the previous dozen years. We were getting into things like cutting the elementary band and strings program that ran in about half of our elementary schools. We were looking at increasing class sizes in secondary schools, in some cases breaking through that 30 student barrier that we had never gone to before. There were reductions in special education funding and gifted education funding. Our board took a position that these cuts really were going too far and that they were going to start affecting the quality of the education programs at our schools, so when it came time to vote at the end of April, we did not pass that budget.”

After the board refused to balance the budget, Education Minister Mike Bernier said he wasn’t going to be making any sudden decision and said he wasn’t going to fire the school board yet.

He did say he was seriously considering it, but in the meantime, a forensic audit was ordered into the VSB’s finances.

There was then a proposal to sell Kingsgate mall which would help that budget deficit, which the Vancouver School Board ultimately turned down.

During this time there was a major scandal that came out, and that still is under investigation. Senior staff suddenly started taking sick leave, with allegations of bullying and the Vancouver School Board being a toxic environment, which Patti Bacchus has denied.

She’s said she’s never seen anything that could be considered bullying. WorkSafeBC is currently involved with the ongoing investigation.

On top of this 11 Vancouver Schools ended up on the chopping block because of a capacity mandate of 95% that the ministry had set out, with Bernier himself cutting that so-called goal in September.

In a span of three weeks in late September and early October, Trustees forwarded all 11 schools to public consultation for closure, went back on that decision, and then announced they planned to pass the budget on the evening of October 17th.

However, on the morning of October 17th, Education Minister Mike Bernier fired the Vancouver School Board for not balancing the budget by the deadline of June 30th.

Speaking to the minister last week, Bernier said he stands by his decision to dismiss the board.

“I was trying to work closely to work with the board, trying to get to the place where good decisions would be made to help the students. When the budget first wasn’t passed by the deadline, which by law is required to do, and they were the only school district in the province that didn’t do that, it put me in the place where I had to make some tough decisions. I didn’t want to make that knee-jerk reaction. When we brought in the auditor to look at everything, at the end of it the report came back to me basically saying we couldn’t see a good path forward. We couldn’t see that with the board that was in place, if they stayed in place, that we would be able to continue on and have good decisions. I needed to make the right move for education for the students in Vancouver and eliminate the board and try to bring some stability into the system.”

And stability in the eyes of the ministry is in the hands of the sole VSB trustee, Dianne Turner, who is now doing the job that the board did.

She has one year in that position with the option to extend that.

After the firing of the VSB trustees, many protested the termination of the democratically elected officials, and Bernier did tell say there will be a by-election.

“I’m completely in favour of having democratically elected boards, we have them all around the province, in all the school districts. Vancouver had an elected board, no different than any other school district. That board chose to not follow the law, not follow the act, and not make good decisions. That has created a lot of instability. Ms Turner will need at least a year, so when I appointed her to that position she was given a one-year term with the option to continue on depending on where we are at. There will be an election for a new board in Vancouver, definitely, but I can’t say when that is.”

A topic of concern to parents, teachers and students across the province is the lack of seismic funding for schools in the Lower Mainland, especially since we are in an earthquake-prone zone. Schools that were promised upgrades have gone years without them, some fed up parent groups have pooled their money and purchased earthquake response kits including shovels to dig their kids out of rubble if an earthquake does strike.

When asked, Minister Bernier linked the lack of seismic upgrades back to Vancouver School Board Trustees.

“I can say that I share the frustration in Vancouver on the time it has taken for some of these projects. When you look at other districts that have taken the politics out of decision making and just tried to make good decisions for students, they made good decisions and are getting their seismic upgrades completed. Vancouver has been one of those districts that even though we brought forward ideas, we had a project office put into place trying to expedite and move forward with seismic upgrades, one of the challenges that was slowing us down was that we would get things right to a final stage and the board would change their mind. Or the board would come back and ask for something different. Or we would ask for their top priorities and they would change them. All these things kept slowing down the process. The focus needs to be on making our schools safe. The province has the funds, we are committed to making sure we are moving forward and seismically upgrading our schools but we need to be working collaboratively with the district so they can bring forward recommendations to us on a timeline that we can all achieve.”

Another topic of debate is whether or not children with special needs are receiving adequate services in public schools. Funding cuts have left less special education teachers in classrooms, something Bernier admits has affected students.

“We can always be looking at helping out more and doing more to assist our students with special needs to ensure they get the best education possible. We have continued to increase the budget, but it’s something that has been brought to my attention as I’ve travelled around school districts across the province. More work can be done.”

Jen Stewart, a mother and member of the Parent Advocacy Network and Families Against Cuts to Education, says underfunding has hurt kids in the public school system and says with 2017 around the corner, the needs of children should come first, not politics.

“In Vancouver alone, there is 700 million dollars in deferred maintenance that is a huge problem. We have PACS out there fundraising every day from September until June for technology, carpets, books, field trips, necessities that should be provided. Living in a province that has a 2 billion dollar surplus and boasts often about a strong economy, it’s absolutely shameful that schools are in the terrible condition that they are in and that parents are raising money so you have a different situation in one community compared to another. Our children spend their days at these schools, this is for our society so everybody has a stake in it. We need to get the politics out of education, this goes to the provincial end of it as well. We have a polarisation and a refusal to acknowledge the merit of a given position, just based on who is taking that position. That does not serve our children. Education should not be a political proxy fight. We all need to focus on the future of our province, and that future starts with our children and public education.”

Stewart also spoke on the ground-breaking Supreme Court ruling in favour of the BC Teachers’ Federation, just a few hours after a hearing into the case started back in November.

Teachers had their rights to bargain class size and composition back in 2002 when the provincial government used legislation to do so.

“No one expected them to take a 20-minute break and issue a final ruling, it threw everyone for a loop, but something parents totally support and have been demanding since the government made the decision to tear up contracts. We have got a whole generation of kids who have gone through school with fewer and fewer supports but we are hoping they will quickly come to an agreement about what will result from that but that’s between the union and the government. That settlement alone will not fix all of the underfunding issues we see in the schools.”

Perhaps the voices that have not been heard this year, are the students of Vancouver.

Ronic Parmar is a recent graduate from Gladstone Secondary, one of the schools on the chopping block, which is home to around a thousand students.

He says the concerns of students are not being heard by Minister Bernier and has requested for a discussion to take place in the new year.

“He needs to go out there and talk to the students and listen to the concerns that they have. We’ve asked the minister to come, sit with students and listen to concerns that we have. We have had no response. We would really like for him to stop the campaign mode right now, there’s lots of time before the election, come sit with the students, listen to the concerns that we have, and try to address them. Yes, there are schools that are below capacity but there are other schools that are above capacity. We have schools that are about 100 percent capacity, there aren’t enough schools in Surrey. We want to discuss our legitimate concerns with you, and we aren’t getting the opportunity to do that. We want something to happen here. Come and talk to us. We couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”