School board Trustee Carol Gibson has never sought the media limelight, but has remained one of the most dedicated elected officials in our city. Earlier this year Carol decided that she would not be running for re-election, choosing instead to enjoy retirement and spend time traveling with her husband. Contacted by Vancouver Courier schools columnist Naiobh O'Connor, Carol did an email interview. Naiobh's piece is available to read here. Carol provided CityCaucus.com with the full responses, which we share below.
When I started my job as a Vancouver School Board trustee in 2005 a colleague asked me how I measured success in the role. My response then is similar to what it is today. Given the role, I know I have been successful when I pose a question to staff and they respond with fixed eye contact, indicate sincerely and verbally that it is an excellent question and that they will think about it and get back to me.
Why does this represent success for me?
Organizations are typically change averse. Forced change is typically destabilizing and resisted by individuals. If a question engages individuals to investigate, to inquire and to examine current practice, it will facilitate dialogue and permit individual people to themselves inquire whether there are different ways to accomplish a goal. Follow through is absolutely necessary. However, if the Board is challenging staff to take a new direction, one way to have it happen is for staff to bring it forward as their own.
I have been fortunate during the two terms to have represented the Board to BCSTA, BCPSEA, Vancouver Diversity Committee, Vancouver Heritage Commission and to the Metro ESL Consortium. I have represented BCSTA to the Inter-ministry Committee on Youth Crime and Violence as well as to the Teacher Qualification Service Board. Toward the end of my first term as a trustee, I was also asked and agreed to serve on the BC College of Teachers.
What I bring to all of these roles is an analytical approach to problems, experience to work with complexity, understanding of multiple competing interests, an understanding of governance and a pragmatic professionalism that is bred in the bone.
As a trustee I am not certain you can ever say definitively "this, I accomplished." I am always working with others, with the Board, with competing interests, with staff, with parents and the community. What we accomplish happens through the individual and unique contributions of each of us and all of us.
One of the most challenging aspects of being a trustee is understanding the role and balancing competing priorities. The role has two aspects and balance is critical.
On advice to future school trustees
If I were to offer advice to prospective school trustees it would be as follows.
Remember that school boards are co-governors of public education with the Ministry of Education.
This is a "partnership" with an inherent power imbalance as the Ministry controls the funding. However, as the current Minister has so wisely stated, the actual control over the funding is with Treasury Board. Boards need to ensure that, regardless of governing party or the specific Minister, the Board works jointly with the Ministry to present to Treasury Board the best case possible for increased funding for public education.
We cannot do this if we continually pick unnecessary fights with the Ministry or a Minister. More critically, we cannot do it if we pick fights on behalf of stakeholder groups who are more than capable of representing their own interests to the Ministry.
My second piece of advice is to bear in mind that we are advocates for the specific needs of our communities. The community includes students, parents, staff, the electorate and their commitments to public education.
Boards need to be open, transparent and consultative within communities. As individual trustees we may never know specifically who, in the privacy of a polling booth, actually cast a vote to elect us. We therefore must respectfully serve and listen to all members of the community, not just those with the loudest voices or the most organized e-mail campaigns.
More critically, as trustees we need to ensure we listen to, but do not distort education priorities for children by serving political agendas of other organized interest groups who are fully capable of representing their own interests.
On budgets & staff morale
Budget constraints are the norm for any public sector organization including education, health and welfare. In the forty years that I been involved in public education at various levels I have never once heard a Minister, a President, a Superintendent, a Chair of Board or a Union President publicly state that there was sufficient resources to meet a mandate.
This was the case even in the days when we were responding to the demands of the Boomer Generation by indiscriminately throwing money at every problem.
The challenge for Boards of Education is to accept that there will never be enough money, work with the Ministry to make the best case to Treasury Board to get funds for specific initiatives and then to manage the funding in the most responsible, transparent and accountable manner possible.
There is only one taxpayer and Boards must always be mindful of this.
Staff morale is challenged as it always is by organizational change. The role of the Board is to govern through change, to set a clear direction and to assist senior staff as they also manage through the changes. For trustees it is critical to understand that we can accomplish nothing if we lose the trust, respect or cooperation of all our staff.
The Board's role is not to micro-manage, it is to govern. The distinction between these two functions is sometimes not fully understood. It is also a challenge to ensure that contributions of all staff are respected, recognized and supported.
Boards need to balance their responses to requests from various groups to favour their needs over those of another group. To do otherwise creates dissension, resentment, dissatisfaction and dysfunction.
On challenges the VSB will face in the future
The biggest challenge for any Board is to understand the complexity of issues in all areas of the public education enterprise. Trustees must clearly understand their role individually as well as the role and mandate of a Board.
A response from many trustees across the province to the Comptroller General's Report of VBE was "we're elected, it is not legitimate to evaluate our competency." I would argue that being elected and being competent is what the electorate should expect, and what trustees should expect of themselves. Trustees are required to understand the complexities, listen to the electorate, set direction and occasionally make decisions that may challenge their ability to be re-elected.
Two examples may be useful:
- The VBE has committed to a sectoral review which may or may not provide the data required seriously to evaluate educational program and facility changes required to accommodate the needs of 21st century learning in our aging and seismically challenged infrastructure. The recent earthquakes affecting Japan and New Zealand heightened parent concern about seismic upgrades to our schools. The Board may need to think outside the box.
For example, could the Board speed up the seismic processes if it created permanent swing-space for students who must be re-located. Other Districts have used closed schools for this purpose and provided daily school bus service for students as part of the capital project cost. Vancouver also has large sites that could accommodate a more permanent installation of portables.This could serve the needs of several seismic projects, reduce delays and reduce the need to replace portables after 4 moves. The current Queen Elizabeth site provides one example of this type of approach.
- There are legal challenges and recent decisions that will affect all school districts. Vancouver is the media centre for the province. This places VBE at the centre of media attention to the exclusion of all other Boards in BC. Conversely, there are some issues that generalize across all Boards on which Vancouver can play a leadership role.
For example, the Supreme Court decision on Bills 27 and 28 did not "strike down the class size and composition provisions in legislation" as the BCTF would have the public believe. Rather, it stated that the "failure to consult the BCTF" was at issue. The Supreme Court has provided government 12 months within which to rectify this failure to consult. Vancouver's internal staffing analysis on this issue is potentially useful for all Boards.
The BCTF is calling for a return to 2002 staffing levels as stipulated in the contract. Preliminary analysis in Vancouver suggests that if Vancouver returned to the class size and composition requirements of the 2002 contract the District would hire 137 fewer teachers than the Board employed in 2010-11.
This means that despite enrolment decline in Vancouver from 2002 to 2010 and despite the "1000 violations" of legislated class size and composition provisions Vancouver hired 137 more teachers than it would have had it operated under the 2002 contract.
What else would you have done as a Trustee if possible?
There are always those issues in relation to which I look back and think I would like to continue to contribute because the longer term goal takes longer to achieve than you wish it did.
Three things come to mind:
- We live in one of the most "language rich" communities on the planet and yet multiple language learning is not a focus of our public school system. Edmonton School District has had Mandarin and other second language immersion programs for over 20 years and VBE is only now getting started. My dream is to one day be on an elementary playground or in a secondary hallway in Vancouver schools and routinely hear students asking "how would I say that in your language."
- Vancouver has an Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement which, through my first term, the Board worked with many members of staff and community to bring forward for formal signing. My dream is eventually to see the curriculum in every subject area infused with Aboriginal content such that every Aboriginal student sees his or her culture and history included.
They may then fully experience themselves in our schools as part of the living and thriving Aboriginal cultures which have and will continue to contribute to BC and Canada as a whole.
- ESL and immigrant settlement was an issue for me from the beginning. Initially, schools were not included as major contributors to immigrant and refugee settlement even though they had always been involved. In my first term, we worked to get federally funded settlement workers in schools (SWIS) which has had a significant positive impact on how VBE is able to respond to new immigrant and refugee families.
There is still much work to be done to help Boards, all levels of government and staff at all levels fully to understand the challenges faced by school districts to integrate refugee families into our schools. District staff work with multiple NGOs in Vancouver, but I am not sure there is generalized knowledge in the education system of the conditions from which refugee families have escaped or the challenges they face to integrate.
- post by NPA School Trustee Carol Gibson.