Next Vancouver school board needs to focus on students not politics

Along with the announcement of an Oct. 14 byelection to replace Vision Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs — who now works for the provincial government as Premier John Horgan’s chief of staff — comes an announcement by Education Minister Rob Fleming that a new Vancouver School Board will be elected on the same day.

While it is likely that the contest for the council seat will garner the most attention, the stakes are immeasurably higher when it comes to the future of Vancouver’s board of education. One cannot stress enough what the risks are if the corrosive culture established by the last board continues.

At the present time the majority of the senior management team has quit or taken leave of the Vancouver School Board under duress, believed to be caused by Vision Vancouver trustees Patti Bacchus and Mike Lombardi. The destructive work environment created by trustees was documented in redacted reports of two separate independent investigations by lawyer Roslyn Goldner and WorkSafeBC, and reported in detail in past editions of this publication.

The workplace had become so toxic — thanks to the actions of Bacchus and Lombardi in particular — that nearly a year after they were fired some VSB staff remain anxious that they might return.

Bacchus has already announced she will not run in the byelection. She seems satisfied at present with tweeting her criticisms of B.C.’s education system, and writing commentary for the Vancouver Observer, an online media site with ties to Vision Vancouver, which makes her easier for most of us to mute.

The fact that Lombardi has announced his intention to run again should be no surprise. What is concerning, however, is that Vision Vancouver will invite him to its candidate slate. It speaks volumes about an organization’s moral compass when they are prepared to campaign for someone so publicly disgraced.

Perhaps Vision’s candidate selection committee has not read the WorkSafeBC report of the “gong show” board meeting Lombardi chaired on Sept. 26, 2016 where he pointed to the angry crowd, turned to the senior management team and said, “See what you guys have created here. Look at this, you guys created all of this.”

Keeping Lombardi on the slate does an injustice to other Vision trustees who comported themselves in an adult-like and professional manner. Vision trustees Joy Alexander and Allan Wong did their level best to rise above the friction caused by their counterparts. If either run again and win, voters would be likely served well by them.

The same goes for the Green Party’s Janet Fraser, who ultimately buckled under intense pressure and voted against the VSB’s balanced budget, thus triggering the board’s firing. But Fraser earned the respect of staff and her colleagues for her thoughtful decision-making, and her ability to withstand personal attacks from Bacchus.

As for the NPA, who they decide to run will not be known until they hold a nomination meeting in early September.

See also: It’s trial by Twitter at the VSB 

The new board will be entrusted with many critical responsibilities, including the hiring of a new superintendent and secretary treasurer. The pool for excellent candidates for these jobs is extremely shallow, and not helped by how expensive it is to live and work in Vancouver.

If we do not get the right leadership at the VSB, and eradicate the partisan politics from the board itself, Vancouver’s public school system will surely struggle to succeed.

Vision’s real quest appeared to be the ouster of Christy Clark from political office, in which they evidently succeeded. With the B.C. NDP now in power and several of their Vancouver MLAs at the cabinet table, the dynamic might be considerably different.

The next board will have to choose what to do with unsuitable school buildings — some more than 100 years old — that will crumble during an earthquake. The provincial government should commit to building new schools across the district.

A decision must also be made about the surplus capacity, and what to do with under-enrolled schools. With a little imagination these facilities could get a new lease on life providing more access for community programs.

For teachers, administrators, VSB staff and parents such as myself, our best hope should be the normalization of Vancouver’s troubled school board into one focused squarely on the success of our students, and not on scoring political points.


Originally published in Vancouver Courier newspaper