At 8 a.m. on Monday, May 6, 1985, couriers knocked on the doors of all nine Vancouver School Board trustees. They were carrying letters of dismissal signed by then-education minister Jack Heinrich.
Despite warning signs, the letters came as a shock. It was the first time an elected school board had actually been sacked. The Vancouver board, along with many others, had submitted “needs-based” budgets, rather than budgets that would comply with government spending limits — and result in program cuts, fired teachers, and closed schools.
The Socred government of Bill Bennett pressured school boards to fall into line.
But Vancouver still wasn’t the only holdout board by May 6. Burnaby, Coquitlam and Cowichan also resisted, but weren’t fired. Those boards, evidently intimidated by Vancouver’s fate, soon capitulated.
Heinrich appointed former Victoria school superintendent Al Stables as sole trustee. Stables promptly — and single-handedly — passed a property tax bylaw to raise revenues, but struggled to establish his credibility as an authority in education.
Apart from discussion on radio talk shows, public reaction to the firing was subdued. The outgoing president of the B.C. School Trustees’ Association resigned a few days before his term ended in protest against the government’s funding policies. That may have been the last squawk ever uttered by the BCSTA.
The government accurately assessed public reaction to the board’s firing. Education Ministry mandarin Jim Carter predicted to the Association of B.C. School Superintendents (fondly known as Abscess) that there would be protests in the spring over the cuts, a pause over the summer, and then more complaints in September when kids went back to school and parents faced the impact of the budget cuts.
But by October, Carter said, life would go back to normal.
‘You know you can’t quit’
Stables was no caretaker. He ordered Vancouver superintendent Dan Lupini and his team to make $14 million in spending cuts, and the administrators did just that.
Why didn’t they resign in protest?
“They’ve got us by our professionalism,” an official in another district told me at the time. The takeover had sickened him, he said, but it wouldn’t last forever. Someone had to hold things together. “You ask yourself what’s in the kids’ best interest, and you know you can’t quit.”
But even Stables couldn’t cut deeply enough to bring expenses below the government’s mandated limit. So he eliminated $7 million in funding for possible teachers’ salary increments, which the government had decreed wouldn’t be paid. And he dipped into the district’s capital reserve fund of over $5 million, earned from sales and leases of school property. The board had reserved the money for costs of severance pay and early retirement. Now it was going into operating expenses.
This led to more protests, with fired trustees saying Heinrich had never told them they could use that money to cover operating costs. Though actually, they hadn’t considered the fund because they didn’t think it would begin to cover the shortfall. (Burnaby also used a capital fund to meet a compliance budget. Coquitlam capitulated, and Cowichan, the last holdout, was sacked a week after the Vancouver board.)
The end of school boards
The real losers weren’t the fired trustees.
The 1985 Vancouver firing marked the end of real, autonomous school boards in the province. School boards had once been government bodies capable of taxing local industry and residential property, and using the money to fund much of their budgets. If they taxed too much, they paid the consequences.
The Bill Bennett Socreds had deprived them of the industrial tax base in 1981 and, effectively, the residential base a few years later. The province henceforth would assign a budget to each district. The board’s job was simply to set some of the spending priorities… and to decide what to cut when the budget wasn’t enough.
For the past 30 years, school trustees have had a truly thankless job — unable to make any real educational decisions and too often forced to do Victoria’s dirty work.
While per-pupil spending has indeed gone up more than inflation since 1985, so have countless fixed costs, not to mention the costs of computers (rare in 1985 schools) and of meeting new demands on the schools.
Trustees’ chief function now is to be advocates for the schools — to tell the public what’s going on and why, and to try to put some pressure on the provincial government to improve school support.
It doesn’t always work out. That leaves trustees with few options: quit, rubber-stamp each budget as it arrives, or move on to municipal or provincial government.
What are the alternatives?
Does this mean we should ditch school boards and let Victoria run the schools directly? We used to have a centralized system, with the ministry appointing superintendents to run local schools with little involvement from trustees. But today’s communities are too big, and too well-educated, to tolerate that.
One possibility might be to merge school districts with local municipal and regional governments. Education would simply be another municipal service, like firefighting or park maintenance. Some councillors might have a special interest, and political debates could still be fierce: close a school or shut down a rec centre?
Something like this actually operates in Scandinavia, where municipal governments run the schools while the national governments set curriculum and policy. But most tax revenue in those countries goes straight to local government and then filters up to the top; we do just the reverse.
Education is a profoundly conservative institution, and it does not change easily or swiftly. But our present system of school districts supposedly governed by boards is clearly dysfunctional. What might replace it should be high on the agenda in next year’s provincial election.