Manufacturing dissent: Vision/COPE collaborates with BCTF to rile up parents
Sometimes I get frustrated when I don't know enough details to make a sound decision. The troubles at the Vancouver School Board is one of those occasions. Yet my fellow parents are leaping out on protest lines as if they're absolutely sure VSB trustees are giving them the straight goods. I think most of us are being played for suckers, including people who understand the education system far better than I.
According to reports, the Vancouver school trustees were greeted with a standing ovation by members of BCSTA in Victoria last week. The BC School Trustees Association for whatever reason decided that Vision/COPE were heroes for beating up on the Minister of Education. It must have made some members sick to their stomach. While districts in BC's north and other regions are making tough decisions to close multiple schools, Vancouver has closed but one, with no signs that they are prepared to face the tough decisions on declining enrollment.
What has largely gone unreported by education journalists here is the bald-faced attack on "the elite" within Vancouver's school system. I must give Vision/COPE and budget staff within the VSB credit for a very clever political strategy. Canceling band and strings programs, and putting the coveted Mini Schools programs on the chopping block was a brilliant stroke.
You see, these programs are seen as "elite" programs – not unlike the ones you would see in independent (private) schools. The Mini schools are for so-called "highly motivated" youth who generally are under-challenged by normal academic streams, or may otherwise struggle in regular class environments. The Mini schools provide a leg up for these exceptional students.
The band and strings programs are another VSB offering aimed at exceptional students, who in many cases reside in west side (read: BC Liberal) ridings. The just over $500,000 that cutting this program would save on the multi-million dollar budget shortfall may seem like a pittance, but in terms of getting headlines and well-spoken students and parents in front of TV cameras, it paid huge dividends.
Playing the class warfare card was a decision that probably started with the socialist COPE trustees who prefer to set the bar low for the whole system, but it would have required the help of supportive VSB staff to be slipped into the new Superintendent's budget recommendations. As I've stated before, Vancouver School Board Chair Patti Bacchus is the spokesmodel for independent schooling in our city, and while she makes excuses for her board's lack of leadership, private school operators are seeing the end of arts and specialty programs as a goldmine.
Perhaps the most shameful example of politics over principle came at Monday night's board decision to shorten the school year by two weeks, and extending long weekends and holiday breaks. As Abbotsford trustees stated on Tuesday night's newscasts, they tried the long Spring break thing for eight years and it barely saved them any dollars. What all those additional days off will do is eat up discretionary money for low-income parents, some who can barely afford to pay for outside care. Yes, Vision/COPE are sure such great social progressives, until they make decisions that will cost a single mom hundreds of dollars per year to buy more out of school care services, or keep them from work altogether.
Where are the tough decisions on cutting down on administrative costs? Where are the attempts to seriously look at closing half-empty facilities? You don't hear any of that from this board. In fact, VSB Committee II have just passed changes to their by-laws to make it even harder to close schools. Even if a school is empty and all kids are enrolled elsewhere, according to rules passed earlier this month by the VSB you can't close a school in less than 12 months. That's simply amazing to me when you consider that other districts have made the tough decisions that Vision/COPE carefully avoid.
What's also interesting to me is the political operation set up between Vision/COPE and the unions to manufacture dissent and needlessly upset parents. The name Stepan Vdovine keeps coming up in regards to the political operations behind this attack on the Education Ministry. Vdovine is well-known to Visionistas as the young Hollyhock scamp who lives and breathes a combination of politics and systemic social change.
Vdovine ran in 2008 as a candidate for Vision's school board slate, and was beat out by Kenneth Clement by 8 votes. After the loss he was rewarded by the party with a seat on their board. His bio states, "Stepan considers involvement in the political process as the most effective way to achieve social change." Sounds like this lad is on the Joel Solomon/Gregor Robertson social change meal plan – not sure if his time on Cortes Island (see photo at right) has anything to do with this.
At 24 years old, Vdovine has become the Vision school trustees' policy wonk. A Vancouver resident, Stepan schleps himself out to Maple Ridge where he is an elected trustee for School District 42. Curiously, Vdovine had a blog where he spent most of his time talking about his favourite topics, himself and school budgets. However it appears that blog has been taken down by Vdovine, but some pages remain thanks to Google cache. It strikes me as odd that Vision takes policy direction on education from someone barely out of the education system himself, but nothing surprises me about this organization now.
Vdovine has been working behind the scenes for the Stop School Cuts coalition, which basically is Vision, BCTF, COPE, BCTF, and BCTF. In fact, Vdovine designed the organization's poster for the rally held this month at John Oliver school, and he proudly emblazons it on his Flickr page. He also produces lush propaganda videos to push his show me the money message. Those who wondered why Vision pressed to include public school teachers in the Olympic Athletes Village rental housing plan, only have to look at how closely Vdovine is working with that militant union.
There are possible consequences for the delicate COPE/Vision coalition in all this too. Vdovine is rumoured to have been lobbying COPE's Allan Wong to jump ship to Vision Vancouver, even presenting him with a membership to sign.
Why Vision are in a last-minute panic to sway Wong might be explained by Thursday's critical budget vote. There are signals that COPE and the NPA trustees may vote against the budget, which would not only be a huge vote of non-confidence in Bacchus as Chair, it could trigger a whole series of actions including the possible firing of the entire Vancouver School Board by the Education Minister. If that happens, Vision's political strategy for schools could go up in smoke, along with the political ambitions of Bacchus, Mike Lombardi and others who might vy for city council seats next year.
There are political agendas in play that may not be clear to most of us. But in the end Bacchus and Vision have got what they want, which is parents eating out of their hands, and the Minister demonized by yet another clever union strategy. And as always, it's the students that get the short end of the stick.
How long can this kind of antagonism go on in our school system is an open question. Parents are sick to death of it. Don't be surprised if big changes start happening at BC's school boards by the summer.