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