Opinion

What Vancouver School Board ‘Bullying’ Report Really Says about BC Education

This is the culmination of a half-century of school wars.

By Crawford Kilian 9 Mar 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

As a former school trustee, I’ve sympathized for 35 years about the challenges all British Columbia school boards face. When the Ministry of Education fired the Vancouver board last year, I was sad but not surprised; boards have been fired before.

But the follow-up to this firing, the Goldner Report, raises the stakes for the whole public school system. Now it’s not just a matter of one errant board, but the culmination of a half-century of B.C. school wars.

The report’s intended lesson is to warn all boards to stick to “stewardship” — to doing what can be done with whatever funds Victoria chooses to provide. Advocating for children, as the Vision Vancouver ex-trustees still see their task, will only get you the sack.

The unintended lesson of the report, however, is that things just can’t go on like this. The system has evolved over decades of underfunding into one in which the chief task of trustees, administrators, and teachers is not education but damage control.

Goldner certainly confirms the earlier news reports of trustees bullying administrators, who were evidently driven into stress leave and an appeal to the ministry for help. She paints a picture of a board utterly unlike the one I served on in North Vancouver.

In the early 1980s we had our financial stresses as well: rampant inflation that was tamed by a harsh recession, declining enrolments, and unhappy taxpayers. Trustees often disagreed with one another, but we listened carefully and reached a consensus time after time — often with the advice of our superintendent and other administrators, whose experience and wisdom we respected.

Trustees and administrators alike were damned unhappy with the way the Bill Bennett Socreds were treating us, and we made our case to the ministry and the public (that’s where I got my start as an education writer). But in the end we got our budgets in, however much damage control it took.

In hindsight, the 1980s set the themes for the next 30 years. Underfunding became chronic (always billed as “more funding than ever,” but never enough to keep up with growing costs). Boards were fired, by the NDP as well as the Socreds and Liberals. Enrolments rose and fell, so every new school soon had portable classrooms all over its playing area. Schools were closed, or kept open only by leasing out space to day cares and pre-schools.

Escalating the school wars

When the Socreds, now morphed into the Liberals, took over again in 2001, Christy Clark as education minister escalated the school wars. After tearing up teachers’ contracts, the Liberals fought a stubborn 15-year rearguard action against the B.C. teachers’ union, which ended last year in Clark’s defeat in the Supreme Court of Canada.

That decision raised an issue that Goldner did not address in her report: public education is a long-term project that we continue to fund only in the short term. Meeting this year’s budget is the only concern; who cares what happens next year, or next decade? Trustees do, but meeting the budget also means abandoning long-term needs — and compounding their schools’ long-term problems.

In fairness, Goldner wasn’t asked to analyze underlying issues, but to determine what had been going on in one B.C. school district. Her redacted report describes some acrimonious meetings and cites staff complaints that some trustees didn’t seem to understand their duties. Staff also complained about tactics intended “to manipulate the outcome of debate and to further a political agenda rather than to promote the interests of the district.”

Goldner also describes the Vancouver School Board as having “a tough or challenging work environment” resulting by 2016 in a truly toxic workplace. Trustees’ “bad behaviour” involving “yelling, name calling and table pounding... eye-rolling and audible sighs... bickering and infighting amongst trustees and disrespectful conduct.”

What’s an agenda? And what’s ‘intermeddling’?

It sounds unpleasant, but it also sounds strikingly like Question Period in Ottawa or Victoria. Goldner often cites staff anxiety about “political agendas.” No one complains about José Bautista “having a baseball agenda,” and politicians are elected on the basis of their political agendas. But “agenda” has come to mean “doing things I don’t approve of.”

Goldner comes down in support of Vancouver School Board staff and their charges of a toxic workplace, and the content of the redacted passages of her report might lend added force to her conclusion. She goes a little far in citing staff complaints that the ex-trustees still “intermeddle in district affairs,” actually attending board and committee meetings as every citizen has a right to do.

It certainly seems as if we have enough blame to go around. If trustees bullied and harassed staff, that was bad politics as well as bad behaviour. The superintendent and other senior administrators could not persuade the trustees that their behaviour was unacceptable and their policies unachievable; that reflects ineffective communication skills. And Goldner’s own report seems to me highly political as well, a vindication of the ministry and a warning to other school boards.

It would be naive to assume that this was all due to a few bad apples being elected to the board (or to the provincial government). After half a century, B.C.’s entire public school system is dysfunctional — and engineered to be that way by successive governments. We need to do more than elect better apples — we need to rebuild the system for the long term.

The first step should be a new education commission, to hear public concerns and explore alternatives. The Vander Zalm Socreds launched our last commission almost 30 years ago, and its recommendations were largely shelved — partly by the Socreds themselves and then by the Harcourt NDP government.

A new commission should have a broad mandate to look into issues like demographics, immigration, and housing; such factors drive problems like declining and expanding enrolments. Teacher training and professionalism need attention. The whole funding system needs redesign to suit students’ long-term needs, not those of politicians thinking no further than the next election.

But it should be an inclusively public system, a public good like clean water and not merely a consumer good like soda pop. The commission shouldn’t waste its time looking into simple solutions like vouchers or privatization. It should look at other systems’ successes and failures, and be guided accordingly.

It could well be that the new commission would recommend doing away with school boards altogether, and make education a municipal responsibility — or run the whole system out of Victoria through four or five regional superdistricts. As long as every child in the province gets a strong, equal education, the administrative structure hardly matters.

Without some kind of long-term vision for the schools, the present system will stagger from crisis to crisis regardless of who’s running the province. We know the system doesn’t work; we need to learn what kind of system will.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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