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Criticism of Vancouver School Board shows 'lack of awareness': board chair

Vancouver School Board chair and Vision Vancouver member Patti Bacchus says criticism of the board for not being outspoken advocates for children from a rival political party "shows a lack of awareness of the complexity of the relationship [between government and the board] and the ways in which you hold ground and in fact you gain ground."

Bacchus was responding to statements made by Tim Louis, internal chair of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), to The Tyee yesterday after COPE's sole elected member Allan Wong, a school trustee, left the party to join Vision Vancouver on Sunday.

"I think it's a set back for people that believe that the school board should be a very vocal and very outspoken advocate on behalf of the children of Vancouver. COPE has a long history of doing just that, all the way back to 1986 when it was so vocal, that the then-minister of education fired the COPE school board," Louis said.

"[The current board] go through the motions. They do not cause the minister any discomfort, and as a result, the minister does not pay attention and does not provide the school board with the resources that it needs."

Bacchus was chair of the board in 2010 when then-education minister Margaret MacDiarmid was rumoured to be considering firing the board for its hesitation to pass a balanced budget that covered a $17-million funding shortfall.

But Bacchus was also present during the aftermath of the 1986 school board firing Louis mentioned. Then a journalism student at Langara College, Bacchus said history has shown that being fired for what you believe in may not be worth it in the end, though she doesn't rule it out as a future advocacy tactic.

"When we had the [government] appointed trustee running a school board meeting [after the board was fired], that was fairly bizarre…. It made an impression on me. And what ultimately happened is [the trustee] went ahead and made cuts," she recalled, adding a North Vancouver School board was later fired under a New Democratic Party government, also for not balancing their budget.

"We have seen that more recently in Cowichan [Valley], a very similar scenario where the board felt they couldn't in good conscience pass a budget with cuts. I’m not sure it has changed anything, and in fact it may not bode well for the future of school boards when I saw their [District Parent Advisory Council] chair quoted as saying things were running almost more smoothly now."

Although the Vancouver School Board, which is now composed of six Vision and three Non-Partisan Association trustees, has been very vocal about education funding and what it views as cost downloads from government like Medical Services Plan and Hydro fee increases, Bacchus says a lot of quiet diplomacy behind the scenes between the ministry and the board has resulted in many little successes.

These include unveiling a Mandarin immersion program, the aboriginal focus school at MacDonald Elementary, increasing aboriginal and overall graduation rates, more Montessori programs, a primary international baccalaureate program, and early reading intervention and recovery programs.

"We do a lot of work to make sure [the ministry] understand the value of the work that we do. What appears in the headlines is only a small part of what happens in terms of the work of the board, trying to ensure that we're getting the best resources, staffing, and programs in place for students," she said.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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