A VSB poll shows the public prefers closures over program & staff cuts – photo: Wikimedia Commons
In what has become a surprisingly common practice by Vision Vancouver-led governments, another hasty political decision has been made in the backrooms of power. A tweet went out that Vision Vancouver would be holding a media availability at noon, just 20 minutes after a 44-page staff report from the Vancouver School Board Superintendent's office was circulated at 11am Sunday morning by email.
NPA school trustees were both in the midst of a rare day off when I called them Sunday morning and neither had seen the report which, according to Denike, had been emailed to him by Superintendent Steve Cardwell at 11am.
At the noon event Vision Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus said that she and her colleagues had decided to accept the recommendations of the 44-page report, which was to not make any decision on school closures until after the November 2011 election. The report itself was meant to be presented at a VSB meeting this Tuesday, and a vote on the recommendations would take place later this month.
No schools have been closed in the Vancouver school district since 2003, unlike many other parts of the Province where those tough decisions have been made. As school enrollment declines precipitously in several of the city's neighbourhoods, other parts of the district are bursting at the seams. This is a fact that Trustee Ken Denike points out in comments he made by phone this afternoon.
"This recommendation of this report to not consider closures is a complete failure of management at the Vancouver School Board," says Denike. "Parents and kids continue to face the uncertainty in the affected communities. This report does nothing to relieve that anxiety, nor does it address our financial challenges. Areas of the city where more student spaces are needed are going to have to wait longer for them as a result."
The report was coincidentally rushed out on a Sunday when the BC NDP caucus meeting is dominating the political headlines – that meeting has since been cancelled by the party. The decision by VSB staff to keep all five schools open, and not make a decision until 2012 begs questions of whether there has been political at play in the recommendations. Denike thinks so.
"I'm going to ask the Superintendent Steve Cardwell at the board meeting on Monday night if there was political interference in the recommendations of this report," says Denike.
On Sunday many media are claiming that the schools have been "saved" from closure, but the reality is it will now be up to the next board to decide the fate of under-enrolled schools, not the present board.
While Vision Vancouver trustees are telling reporters that they heard "overwhelmingly" from the public that schools should not close, the findings of their own $27,000 Ipsos-Reid poll does not agree with that assessment.
When the 500 respondents to the poll were asked whether they supported school closures in Vancouver, the number was surprisingly high. 37% said they would support closures, 8% said "don't know" and 55% said they opposed closing schools.
But when given a choice of whether they would choose to close schools, or cut staff, resources and programs, the numbers are significantly altered. 48% of respondents say they would support closing schools, 20% said they "don't know" and only 32% said they would prefer keeping the school open over cuts to programs and staff.
How this becomes "overwhelming" support for keeping schools open can only be understood by Vision's pretzel logic.
Minister of Education Margaret MacDiarmid struck a diplomatic tone when we spoke on Sunday afternoon. She said she was not aware the report would be release Sunday, but did know that the recommendations by management would be coming on Tuesday.
"I've only just briefly been able to read this report, but I'm pleased with what I've seen on several points. It's good to see that the Vancouver school board is recommending support for personalized learning, and as well as the Neighbourhoods of Learning programs," says MacDiarmid.
Asked about the decision to delay school closures until another year's worth of consultations the Minister said, "The decision to close schools has always been taken by local school boards, not by the Minstry. I don't know yet what keeping those schools opens will mean for Vancouver students, or how the Board plans to balance its budget."
"By one estimate I've heard the cost per student in under-enrolled schools is much higher – up to $12,000 per student as opposed to the approximately $8,000 per student we fund," says Minister MacDiarmid. "Other districts have made the decision to close schools. We know that in schools with low enrollment fewer programs are offered, programs that parents want for their children."
MacDiarmid thinks that the Vancouver school district is in good hands thanks to its management team. "I'm counting on the Board to take the advice of their senior management team. My Ministry has always had good lines of communication open with the Vancouver School Board, and that will continue throughout this process."
For Vision Vancouver to have read, processed, discussed the contents of the VSB report within minutes of its release to all trustees is evidence that members of the governing party were given a heads up on the contents of the report in advance. How they were able to have their positions ready based upon the 44-page report recommendations within an hour is more indication of backroom politics by Vision Vancouver.
For parents and NDP politicians who involved themselves in the school closure debate, it's now clear that the meetings and public consultation was a sham process, not unlike the Hornby Street separate bike lane trial. While no one wants a school to close, there are plenty of communities who will be on the losing end of this decision not to decide.
What was needed at this time was leadership and imagination. What Vancouverites got instead was a politically expedient decision just 11 months out from an election.
- post by Mike