VSB brinkmanship not helping our kids

Monday evening, 39 presenters queued up at the gymnasium of Sir Charles Tupper secondary school to comment on the Vancouver School Board budget. It was one of five meetings organized to discuss the 2016-17 VSB budget.

Many in attendance heeded the call to wear red clothing in solidarity with a “No Cuts” campaign, providing a striking visual for TV cameras and social media content.

Sadly for all involved — trustees, staff, anxious parents, and likely a sampling of students up past their bedtime — the meeting was scheduled to run until midnight.

In the quest for more “public input” someone felt it was a good idea to push stakeholders to the point of exhaustion.

Welcome to yet another year of #bced brinkmanship care of the Vancouver Board of Education, brilliantly choreographed by Vision Vancouver for maximum media impact.

Have we been brought to the brink before by this board? Indeed, plenty of times.

I vividly recall the dog and pony show in 2010 whereby parents were asked if their kids’ schools should be closed. It provided several nights of angst-inducing meetings in gymnasiums, in a veritable game of Survivor whereby parents line up to make the case for not being kicked off the island.

Reportedly, every single person except one (more on that in a moment) repeated, “don’t close our school!”

When it was time to make a decision, the choice was postponed until three months after the election. More than four years later there still have been no decisions by the board on the future of under-enrolled facilities.

As the proud parent of teenager in a Vancouver secondary school, I feel we must all do our part to support public schools. But count me as being skeptical that attending these after-dark rallies will have the slightest impact on the board’s decision-making.

The Board of Education might feel good about allowing people to speak, but it will be an analysis provided by staff that has the greatest influence on the Vancouver School Board’s strategic direction.

The meetings do not serve as a bellwether of public sentiment as much as they provide background noise for the politics of public education in our province.

The school trustees, it would appear, are frozen by indecision. Over the past 18 months there have been three different chairs, all of whom ultimately owe their positions to the lone Green Party trustee Janet Fraser, the board’s swing vote.

From what we know, Fraser’s only bottom line is that the chair is anyone but Patti Bacchus.

Who can blame her for that choice? Bacchus has used her Twitter pulpit to put down Fraser, labelling her as “right leaning” and as someone who has “duped and betrayed” Green voters for voting her conscience.

On more than one occasion Bacchus has trash talked her fellow trustees on Twitter — while sitting beside them at the board table!

But a lack of decorum is the least of their challenges. Someone described the board to me as having their feet nailed to the floorboards when it comes to making tough — and appropriate — decisions.

Because emotions have been whipped up, the spectre of having to shutter a school facility strikes the most fear in the trustees. It took parents, not the trustees, to recently request that three annexes — Laurier, Henderson and Maquinna — be closed.

It is time for the trustees to finally look at the issue differently, as I did back in 2010 when I was the lone speaker in favour of consolidating an under-enrolled annex into a nearby main school.

Schools with 60, 50 or 40 per cent of capacity rob kids and parents of the ability to build relationships with more of their neighbours, while denying teachers the resources they need to provide a fulsome education.

It is a mistake to think of a school as just a building. A school is the sum of the kids, the teachers and the community that surrounds them.

Our kids deserve the most modern facilities possible, and a curriculum that will prepare them for careers in the 21st Century.

That should be this board’s priority above all. The rest is just theatrics.

Originally published April 26, 2016 in Vancouver Courier newspaper.