"Advocacy on steroids" isn't leadership

Post by Mike Klassen in


Patti Bacchus
Vision VSB Chair Patti Bacchus has a choice to moderate her tone – can she do it?

Vancouver's very fine system of public schools are being held hostage in a showdown sponsored by the BC Teacher's Union in a face-off with the Provincial government. As a parent in the system I'm deeply frustrated by the tactics and manipulation of the BCTF and their elected representatives on the Vancouver School Board. Most parents have no idea what is truly happening, and to keep up with all the players practically requires a database.

I can't possibly paint a complete picture of what's taking place in a blog post, but I think that it would be helpful to provide a little background on the politics in play.

First, let's look at the political decision made by Vision Vancouver in 2008 to cooperate with COPE. Vision's strategy was to shore up their left flank in the last election. They couldn't be deemed as a party of the coveted "centre" of Vancouver's political spectrum if they didn't have COPE on-side. Vision's negotiations with COPE gave the extreme left wing party just two spots on a city council slate, two on Park Board and a majority position on the School Board.

The reason that COPE wanted the school board over council and parks is because of the power shift that took place within their party. Their most dynamic city council candidate Tim Louis was routed in a coup by Vision accommodaters, led by former BCTF president David Chudnovsky. There was a kink in the plan to allow five COPE candidates on Vision's School Board slate. Only three members of the COPE and all four Vision candidates were elected.

COPE did not get their majority position on the School Board because two NPA Trustees – Ken Denike & Carol Gibson – were elected. Nonetheless, the die was cast as Vision went along with COPE's scheme for handing over power to the BCTF and CUPE. As the Comptroller-General's report makes clear, School Board Trustees turned over decision-making responsibility to committees led by union representatives.

Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer describes this in his column about the C-G's report:

If this sounds like a board that has elevated its stakeholders to the level of managers, the comptroller reports that some elected trustees prefer "the views of stakeholders over the advice of professional staff." ...But one of the appendices to her report does provide telling details about the makeup of the committees.

The lineup includes representatives of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers' Association, the Vancouver Secondary Teachers' Association, the Vancouver Association of Secondary School Association Administrators, the Vancouver Elementary Principals and Vice Principals Association, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (two locals), the International Union of Operating Engineers (one local) and the Professional and Administrative Staff Association.

On Friday School Board Chair Patti Bacchus responded defiantly to the Comptroller-General's audit. She stated, "I didn't run for office so I could carry out this government's dirty work and slash programs." What Bacchus was saying in effect is that "I was not elected to govern, to make important decisions on spending, or to be pragmatic. On the contrary, I was sent here to be a thorn in the side of the Minister of Education."

This is what some describe as "advocacy on steroids" and it's what Vision and COPE think passes for leadership.

Thanks in part to her background in media relations & communications, Patti Bacchus was appointed Chair of the Vision/COPE School Board. One of the criticisms of the C-G's report is that the School Board's communications office has become politicized. In fact, the mechanisms of communication at the VSB today seem to be geared toward supporting the will of the Board's pro-union stance.

With the Chair's full half-hour press conference posted on CBC News' website, the VSB have linked Bacchus' defensive response to the C-G's report on the front page of their own site. VSB Trustee & former BCTF Mike Lombardi staffer was quick to circulate Bacchus' media performance when commenting on CityCaucus.com, and the link has been circulated by various political supporters to parent groups over the weekend.

NPA Trustees are not given a similar luxury of communicating through the VSB's website for providing their point of view. Superintendent Steve Cardwell must make this a priority action item in his response to the report – get control back of his communications office.

The public is also not well-served by the agenda journalism of the Vancouver Courier's Naoibh O'Connor. Note O'Connor's account of a dud student political protest held downtown last week. A student named Abdeslam Boubia organized a rally where it was expected that hundreds of youth would attend in support of the School Board's political advocacy. Patti Bacchus & Mike Lombardi, shadowed by Vision's young scamp school policy advisor Stepan Vdovine showed up, along with NDP MLA Shane Simpson.

Only a few dozen students showed up, but O'Connor struggles to admit it was a bust. Instead she makes excuses for the rally's low attendance:

Gauging how troubled students are by the school district's financial problems is hard.

There are always a handful of politically involved students, but it's never clear how informed or interested the larger student body is in the school board's budget even though they'll be most affected by the cuts. They can't be blamed--the 55-page revised budget document isn't exactly a riveting or easy read for teenagers, and board meetings can live up to their name.

But I thought a protest might grab teens' attention.

Our youth are often used as political pawns for the Teachers Union's agenda, and this is just another sad example.

So how is this story going to end? School Trustees are meeting with the Minister of Education on Tuesday morning. Both the Ministry and the School Trustees have been given a set of action items in the Comptroller-General's report. There is still some chance for a rapproachement, but it's going to require everyone swallowing their pride somewhat. So far instead of acknowledging any culpability on her board's behalf, Chair Bacchus has been playing the blame game, including pointing fingers at the previous NPA majority board.

The previous board is cited in the C-G's report for their failure to adequately consider school closures. Two schools were on the chopping block – Queen Elizabeth Annex and Garibaldi Annex. In the case of each, major rallies organized by parents and the BCTF resulted in the Board backing down.

Garibaldi was given a three-year reprieve when they came back with a strategy to improve enrollment. The deadline to prove if it worked happens this year. Queen Elizabeth Annex was given a reprieve in part because of a sale of L'Ecole Anne Hebert to the Francophone School Board. The money from that sale was directed into a new school on UBC campus.

It's possible that that the NPA board simply put off the inevitable in the case of those two schools. There are a half-dozen schools in Vancouver with less than 100 students – including one in my community – that will be among the most difficult to justify keeping open. This so-called "dirty work" that Bacchus says she's not interested in doing might have to be done instead by the politically wounded Provincial government.

The VSB Trustees are bound to their responsibility to pass a budget by the end of this month. At the present time the four Vision Trustees will not have the support of their COPE counterparts if they decide to make any cuts that the BCTF doesn't approve of. This means that Vision would have to rely upon the two votes of the NPA in order to pass a budget.

In other words, the VSB Chair might be well-served by holding back on blaming the NPA for her board's current predicament. The Vision-led School Board has created a very embarrassing situation for Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver. Despite the more radical elements within their caucus, Vision do not want to be seen as left-wing agitators beating up on Victoria. However, the marriage contract with COPE has put them in that position.

Ms. Bacchus will either get a serious dose of pragmatism in the next few days, and knuckle down with her caucus colleagues and find a way to undo the damage of the C-G's report by acting on her recommendations. Or, she will continue on sounding like a political firebrand until June 30th, and risk getting the board fired by the Minister.

It's going to be an interesting three weeks.

- post by Mike


There was nothing helpful in this post. I am pragmatic. The politics are of no interest. Each party involved in this mess has one job: deliver education. If you look at the problems schools face with overloaded special needs classes and literacy issues you have to ask what concrete steps can be taken to make sure that students are taken care of. Nothing else matters. The Trustees could be all commie Martians for all I care. Focus on the actual issues please.

@Robert, sorry if I wasn't "helpful" in describing the politics in play, but it wasn't my intention to solve what ails the VSB in a single post. I suggest you read the C-G's report for a start. There are good suggestions there.

When the special advisor was appointed, I was hopeful that the report would shine a light on the education funding crisis in the district and the province. Unfortunately, the inflammatory tone of the report, along with the numerous misleading and unsubstantiated comments about the VSB and the budget, will deflect from some of the practical recommendations addressed to the board and the Ministry of Education. What should have been a fair and balanced report from the advisor turned out to be an inflammatory report with political overtones that sadly confirms that the comptroller general is not an independent officer of the Legislature, but only an employee of the Ministry of Finance.

Of greater concern to me as a trustee is that the report provides no practical advice to the VSB for dealing with the $17 million-dollar crisis. Furthermore, it claims that the Vancouver School Board has no real financial problems. The report demonstrates a lack of respect for the parents, students, professional employees, and elected trustees-- but also a lack of understanding of the education system and the role of elected trustees in our democratic system of government.

Because the minister of education specifically excluded the provincial funding model from the scope of the work of the Special Advisor, the report does not address the critical issue all school district's across the province face; --the under funding of public education. It does not even touch on the impact of unstable funding and constantly changing provincial government directives. To my dismay, the report contends that putting the needs of students first is mismanagement.

As a trustee, I am looking forward to discussing the report recommendations with the Ministry of Education, VSB staff, and stakeholder groups. It is my hope that some of the practical suggestions for both the board and the ministry can be considered and implemented. However, the process and timeline for appointing the special advisor and the inflammatory tone of the report have created potential barriers to moving forward.

It is my hope that the Minister of Education will demonstrate her willingness and capacity to provide leadership for quality public education in the province. A good first step would be to provide Vancouver and other school districts with additional funding to meet their 2010/11 budget shortfalls and to initiate a review of the funding formula for education funding in BC.”

I look forward to meeting with the Minister of Education on June 8th to discuss the report.

Mike Lombardi
Trustee. VSB

Advocacy on steroids is not leadership but it is lobbying. Patti Bacchus and friends on the VSB board are all free to continue to lobby if that is what they believe their role in public education is.
First they have to decide – accept all of the responsibilities as trustees and not just the easy ones of assigning different degrees of blame to others. The decisions that need to be made to assure that the VSB focus is on the education of the students are not easy but require cooperation and need to be deliberate in an healthy environment by leaders who are not afraid of hard work.
The students are not being served by anyone who accepts to lead the organization and does not understand their role as trustee. The funds and resources that have been allocated to the VSB for planning for and providing for the education of the students are not to be use for what appears to be for a professional approach in lobbying under the guise of an “Advocacy Committee” with the support of the Communication Department.
To continue to use your position as an elected member (s) of the VSB Board to lobby at the expense of what is best for the students and their needs is wrong in so many ways.
If you cannot or are not willing to step up and honor the oath you took as elected trustees, you are free to step aside and follow the necessary procedure to register as lobbyist in this province.
This issue is much more than politics, it should be about the students.

The school problems in this province are many & complex. The basic problem is the system [including Boards & the Ministry] has layered more & more services & demands on staff & teachers over time to the point the system is breaking down. Bottom line-the teachers can't teach any longer.

I understand in Vancouver there are schools with marginal enrollments [Garibaldi with +/-50 students] which for some reason are still operating. As well, Richmond has had a policy of cutting admin staff proportionately to front liners. Vancouver has not, &, the saying is the VSB is 'top heavy with 3rd & 4th Floor types' [referring to the top 2 floors of the VSB admin building]. Richmond, on the other hand, has been a leader in 'inclusion' especially for autistic kids to the point there have been ads placed in overseas newspapers by local realtors telling people if they want to have their autistic child looked after come to Richmond. Problem is Richmond can't afford that programme any more but, haven't had the courage to admit it.

Michael, your offspring, as well as teachers, are the ones who suffer from those poor Board & Ministry decisions. policies & funding combinations.

My favourite recommendation is the one that calls on the board to negotiate with the local unions relief from contract language negotiated and agreed to by the provincial government. If that isn't doing the government's dirty work for them what is?

The fundamental problem is a government that has priorities other than public education. The Comptroller's report is not a fix; few items are actionable for this budget and many are wishful thinking in the whole.

But there's money for the Lions and Whitecaps... For Art Gallery studies... For the monument phase of the Campbell government. And St. Georges... but that's special.

I noted athe comment in section 2.1 of the CG report " board actively involved in the day to day operations"
Seems to be in the genes of Vision look at City Council

pretty funny how Ms. Bacchus has no problem firing bullets at the liberals and NPA.........then a report comes out taking a couple of shots at her and out come the water works.

Boo hoo. Poor Patti. "don't you know i'm the good guy. I take shots at everyone but don't anyone fire back or I will get in front of a microphone and cry".

And funny how everytime a "public inquiry" is held that the left rants loud and wide that all of it 'the recommendations be implemented'. But when it's against them we don't here any of that.....

Poor Patti cry baby.

@rf don't you know the vision caucus are on the side of angels? Their work is pure and well meaning. That's why Patti broke down in tears. How dare an independent comptroller appointed by the NDP and Liberals take shots a her when she's doing God's work. You hit the nail on the head with your comment. Why is she crying like a baby when someone calls her on being a partisan hack for the BCTF, but she shells out negative attacks on someone with the education and credibility of Dr. McDiarmid? Patti, if you shell it out you better be prepared to get it in return. For the record, you and your vision pals aren't faultless, despite what Gregor tells you in your caucus meetings. The only thing that's flawless are Gregor's television good looks.

The only real solution here is to fire the province's school boards and replace them with qualified, appointed boards. The province's elected school boards are infested with union reps doing the bidding of the unions. You could even cut down on the number of boards throughout the province (and the waste created by the current system of fiefdoms)and move to a system of education authorities.

Yes qualified, appointed boards who let the ministry of education walk all over our school system. But why stop there; the current minister is a former doctor let's replace her with a qualified person.
If her leadership is ethical and honest she should have no problems with a school board who disagrees

Shortly after the Socreds certified BCTF as the bargaining agent for all teachers, the union, in collusion with the NDP, began a province-wide campaign to infiltrate school boards with trustees who were either members or the spouse, child or parent of a member. This was in direct violation of what was then Part 5 of the School Act dealing with conflict of interest, and an assault on democracy. When a courageous elector from Richmond, Mr. Cornelius Wynja, brought an action in court (at his own expense) against Pat Gudlaugsen and Sue Halsey-Brandt (2 Vancouver teachers who sat as trustees in Richmond district) he won, both at Supreme Court and BC Court of Appeal (See Wynja v. Halsey-Brandt et al. CA14560. A unanimous decision, it's worth reading the decision of the learned justice) and both teachers were found guilty. Had evidence been entered about the province-wide extent of the conspiracy, fraudulent intent would have been proven and the guilty parties could have been removed from office and all decisions in which they had illegally participated could have been reversed.
Fearing public exposure of this attempt to sit on both sides of the bargaining table, and the resulting demolition of the credibility of BCTF and (what had by then become) the government, the Harcourt Cabinet instituted provincial bargaining under the aegis of BCPSEA, reversing an NDP policy (identical to the BCTF policy) opposing provincial bargaining. This served a dual purpose : it saved their political bacon and it permitted teachers to continue to vote as trustees on matters in which they had no pecuniary interest (although it can be argued that most School Board decisions do affect their pecuniary interest in one way or another). As history has shown, the NDP never intended to permit BCPSEA to bargain in good faith, preferring instead to impose legislated settlements on terms favourable to BCTF, and they did so on three occasions.
Where were the outraged cries of injustice and the bold assertions of human rights when the NDP ignored the "sanctity" of the collective bargaining process? Who has the longest tradition of breaking the law in pursuit of control of K-12? Who can doubt that the supposed concern for students would be dropped in a second if the government caved on the funding issue? This is about money, pure and simple. The first priority of K-12 in BC remains jobs for adults, not the educational needs of students.

Many faults in the VSB report, but we'll persist:Solutions to the funding shortfall must be found and trustees are looking forward to being part of the process, the board's chairwoman writes

By Patti Bacchus, Special to the Sun June 8, 2010

Vancouver school trustees are disappointed the provincial government's recently released review of the Vancouver school board does not help resolve the core challenge facing Vancouver and other school boards across British Columbia: How to avert cuts detrimental to student learning in the face of a growing gap between provincial funding and board responsibilities to deliver education.

Let's be clear, the funding shortfall is due to provincial underfunding and the VSB is just one voice among many boards in the same situation.

Vancouver trustees strongly support the importance of fiscal responsibility. The report confirms we are effectively managing our financial resources by balancing our budget every year, avoiding debt, using sound budget development processes and cash-flow management.

We recognize the importance of ensuring our funding is spent effectively on identified priorities, and we have trimmed district costs by more than $50 million since 2002.

The report found no fault with the way Vancouver allocates resources to educational services. It found that VSB spending on administration was reasonable and in line with other large districts such as Surrey, contrary to the previous education minister's allegations of overspending.

The report also offered suggestions for potential savings, noting several are already underway under the leadership of our board.

We will carefully explore the feasibility of other recommendations in the report for their impact on student learning.

Unfortunately, none of these will avert the millions of dollars in cuts that we, like other boards across the province, are being forced to make for 2010-11, because of the province's failure to fund new costs, such as provincially negotiated salary and benefit increases.

The report primarily challenged trustees' strong focus on maintaining strong student services to support educational achievement and our commitment to working collaboratively with all education partners, which we see as central to our efforts to ensure that scarce resources are spent as effectively as possible.

We will not apologize for putting students first and advocating for the district's needs, within the broader commitment that we have demonstrated to being fiscally responsible and to providing Vancouver's public schools with the best possible democratically elected governance.

The idea that we should obediently and silently adhere to the provincial agenda of cutting programs and closing multiple schools, without speaking up about the impact on our students and our education system or consulting fully with affected communities, doesn't serve the public or our children and youth, nor does it represent the wishes of those who elected us and to whom we are accountable.

We categorically reject the view that the role of elected trustees is to implement millions in school budget cuts without complaint or raising concerns about impacts on student success.

The Vancouver school board is not governed by unelected bureaucrats. If the provincial government wants to replace elected school trustees with provincially appointed executives, that should be debated openly with citizens.

Regrettably, the report contained a number of factual errors, which the VSB will address in a detailed response to the minister.

The minister's mandate to the adviser deliberately barred her from discussing draft findings with the VSB before issuing a final report, and the minister chose not to discuss the report with the VSB before making it public.

Had these normal courtesies been extended and these errors corrected in advance, we believe this would have significantly strengthened the report and allowed the special adviser to make more useful recommendations.

The VSB looks forward to a public meeting with the minister and to getting to work as soon as possible on finding real solutions to our $17-million shortfall.

Patti Bacchus is the chairwoman of the Vancouver school board.

Mike, why are you acting as Patti's apologist? Don't you realize the ship is going down, and your helping to pour water on the deck?

My friend, Patti is steering the SS VSB right onto the rocks and you are acting as her head cheerleader. Get a spine and speak up about how Patti's actions are hurting our kids and destroying our relationship with the Ministry of Education. You know it to be true. Only then will people regain their respect for you. Please, stand up for the kids, not just Patti and your vision colleagues. Stop all the partisan politics.

The Ministry underfunding education across the province while shifting costs to school boards and parents
certainly is not leadership. No leadership and vision for the future of this province by this government.

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