Axed by Christy Clark: Patti Bacchus's account of the final hours of Vancouver's school board

An insider shares the dramatic story of how Premier Christy Clark fired the Vancouver School Board and took over the management of its public schools.

Patti Bacchus School Board trustee who was fired on Monday. Photo courtesy Patti Bacchus.
After almost eight years as an elected Vancouver school trustee, I got fired on Monday. 
 
We did some important work. We brought in groundbreaking policy protections for trans students and we created BC’s first student trustee position.
 
We opened an Aboriginal-focussed school and a early Mandarin bilingual program. We secured funding for two brand new schools — the beautiful Norma Rose Point at UBC and the elementary school under construction downtown at Expo and Abbott.
We rebuilt several seismically unsafe schools — Laura Secord, Jules Quesnel, Kitchener, Douglas, Sexsmith, General Gordon and construction is underway at Queen Mary, Kitsilano Secondary, L’Ecole Bilingue, Strathcona and we secured funding for Nelson, Kingsford-Smith, Fleming and Jamieson for upgrades and rebuilds.
 
Norma Rose Point School. Photo courtesy The Vancouver School Board website. 
 
We just completed a new five-year strategic plan and signed our second Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement. Grad rates are steadily increasing.
 
But our work has come to an sudden stop with the Christy Clark government’s brazen attack on the democratic process Monday with the sudden firing of the elected board.
 

Here’s what happened. 

 
After 15 years of cuts to the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) operating budget, five of the nine VSB trustees decided enough was enough, and we voted “no” last April to passing a balanced budget that included more cuts to services to kids.
 
Under the BC School Act, elected school boards must submit a balanced budget to the Minister of Education by June 30. We didn’t. 
 
Those proposed budget cuts of about $22 million went ahead anyway — in the absence of an approved budget the Superintendent of Schools was compelled to implement them.
 
As the CEO, he needed to ensure the district could meet its financial and contractual obligations. So our “no” note was mostly a symbolic protest. We expressed our full confidence and support for the Superintendent — he had no option. 
 

Bear in mind Vancouver taxpayers submitted enough in school tax levies alone to fund the the shortfall — and that doesn’t even begin to factor in the massive government windfall from property purchases taxes that have bumped up the provincial surplus. These cuts didn’t need to happen at all.

 The Minister of Education, Mike Bernier, was not pleased. In a June 30 news conference he announced he was ordering a forensic audit of the VSB, which must be one of BC’s most audited organizations with annual audits done by firms like KPMG and of course the two “Special Advisor” audits done in 2010 and 2015, along with PwC resource allocation reviews done in 2012 and 2015.
 
Education Minister Mike Bernier announcing timeline extension for special auditor's report. Oct, 06, 2016. Photo courtesy BC Gov't Flickr.
 
Heck, the Auditor General’s office just completed a VSB audit this summer - with positive findings 
 
The Milburn forensic audit was to be completed by September 30. It received two extensions and the the report is yet to be made public. 
 
September saw some very difficult meetings about potential Vancouver school closures. We’d spent two years developing a long-range facility plan (LRFP) that would meet the government’s demand that the district reach an average of 95 per cent capacity utilization within 15 years.
 
Under the Ministry of Education’s formula, the VSB is currently just around 85 per cent — similar to the Richmond and Calgary school boards. 
 
While most BC school districts have seen declining enrolment over the past decade, that trend is starting to shift with overall enrolment increases to BC public school enrolment in the past year.
 
The declining enrolment trend was made worse by the fact that the Province undercuts public schools by subsidizing private education, something that started with the Socred government.
 
Add to that the trend toward smaller post baby boom families. When I was going to school in the 60s and 70s in Dunbar, there were lots of us with big families - I had four siblings, which was not at all unusual.
 

Housing affordability and high day care costs have all been factors in the decline of school age children in Vancouver.

That, combined with continued operating budget pressures and a projected 2017/18 shortfall of $15 million, led VSB staff to recommend the board consider closing 12 schools, including two secondary schools: Britannia and Gladstone. All but one of the 12 schools was in East Vancouver. 

In the days leading up to the September 26 public meeting for the board vote regarding whether to proceed with closures, tension was building.
 
Parents, NDP MLAs, students, community members and city councillors were asking questions about the enrolment projections and data used in the VSB closure reports.
 
On September 21 Bernier made a surprise announcement reversing the requirement that Vancouver reach 95 per cent — a major driver of the LRFP. The Premier announced a $500 million affordable housing fund and a developer wrote to the trustees questioning why we would close schools in an area with multiple housing units coming on stream.  
 
Meanwhile, it was another busy September school start up — a busy time in the best of years. But this year was especially rough. The cuts meant larger class sizes in secondary schools and fewer course options for students.
 

Staff were having trouble creating timetables for students who’d arrived over the summer as they had to pack more kids into fewer classes due to the funding cuts.

Many classes were too full to take any more students and school administrators scrambled to find places to squeeze them in. Some waited weeks to get placed in school. Trustees were getting phone calls from anxious parents about kids who couldn’t get into courses they needed in order to graduate because they were full.
 
But something even more unusual was happening.
 
Senior staff seemed really stressed. There were questions about what kind of information was being provided to the Special Advisor Forensic Audit Team sent in by Bernier, and headed up by Peter Milburn, a former Deputy Minister.
 
When pressed, the Superintendent of Schools, Scott Robinson,  acknowledged Milburn had asked for audio tapes from confidential board meetings — unredacted for privacy issues and third-party personal information or privileged legal advice. And without the knowledge or consent of trustees — his employers.
 
Hours before a large school closure meeting held in the Tupper Secondary Gym on September 26, the Superintendent emailed the trustees to let them know the board’s Secretary Treasurer, Russell Horswill, had gone on “indefinite leave” and asked us not to attempt to contact him.
 
When pressed further at the September 26 meeting about the Milburn requests, Robinson said trustee emails had also been handed over to Milburn, also without our consent or knowledge of trustees. This was astonishing and unprecedented.
 
We asked which emails.
 
He said “all”. I asked for what time period.
 
He replied “I don’t know.” 
 
The school board is the employer, but from week to week senior staff, including Robinson, didn’t know if their employer would be fired and replaced by Milburn or one of his ilk as Bernier had issued several threats through the news media that he was contemplating firing the board.
 
As trustees we always know our emails are available through Freedom of Information requests — and I’ve had a few of those over the years — but third-party private information is protected prior to release.
 
We often received messages with highly personal, private information about students, parents, staff and members of the community. It appears government had free access to all of it. 
 
It was a difficult and long September 26 evening as the board voted to move 11 of the 12 schools, all but Britannia, forward for public consultation regarding potential closure at the end of this school year.
 

The gym was packed with parents and students, several in tears. I voted very reluctantly to continue with the consultation process on the closures.

 
Robinson had warned trustees that without a significant number of closures, he didn’t know how staff could identify savings to balance the next year’s operating budget and its projected $15 million shortfall. It was dire, he warned.
 
I moved two additional motions. One asked the City of Vancouver to review the VSB enrolment projections for East Vancouver in comparison with community and development plans, as we’d received many questions form the public about this and several people disputed the numbers from the VSB spring report.
 
That motion passed with a five-to-four vote but brought shouts from the NPA side that the motion “hurt staff’s feelings.” That was, of course, never my intention, I was doing my due diligence.
 
After we voted to move the 11 schools forward to a public consultation that would lead to a December decision on whether to close or not, I moved another motion.
 
That motion asked staff to review and revise the LRFP to reflect Bernier’s removal of the 95 per cent capacity requirement and to base recommendations on projected “in-catchment” enrolment numbers to ensure more equitable treatment of the east and west sides, as the west side has many students who enrol cross boundary.
 
This was made much easier to do when Christy Clark was the education minister and she amended the School Act to allow more “parent choice”.
 
(Those 2002 School Act amendments meant students didn’t have to attend their neighbourhood schools anymore - otherwise known as “catchment schools” if there was room for them in any other school they wanted to go to.
 
Prior to that they needed their catchment school’s principal’s permission to apply for a school outside of their neighbourhood. These changes were heralded by the Gordon Campbell Liberal government as providing more choice for parents
 

What they really meant was more choice for parents who had the resources to access choice - like the ability to drive their kids across town to a more affluent neighbourhood to attend a school with a higher ranking from the right-wing Fraser Institute.

 
That resulted in more rapid enrolment declines in lower-income neighbourhood schools — putting those schools at risk of eventual closure and less likely to be seismically upgraded because of lower capacity utilization.)
 
Back at the September 26 meeting, trustees debated my motion for a revised plan and questioned about whether there was a budget to complete such a task. The motion was referred to the next board meeting to give staff time to determine the costs of revising the report.
 
The next morning, September 27, we got a message from Human Resources that Superintendent Robinson has also gone on “indefinite” leave, joining Horswill. No call to the board chair and no communication to the board preceded this news. Just gone.
 
A school district can’t run without a Superintendent/CEO or Secretary Treasurer. They’re the top two employees in the district, at the top of the pay scale, with specific roles under The BC School Act.
 
It’s unheard of for them to disappear and leave a large, complex district with thousands of students and staff relying on them for leadership. But it got worse and weirder from there.
 
Mike Lombardi, the Board Chair, tried to call an emergency board meeting for the that evening, September 27, so we could plan next steps.
 
One by one members of the remaining senior management team emailed trustees to say they were not able to attend the meeting. We required one board employee to serve as Acting Secretary Treasurer for the meeting, and no one would do it.
 
In fact someone told all staff to clear the building before 5 pm that day, and they did.
 

Who issued that order?

We couldn’t process any decisions without one employee there. 
 
At one point I turned to Lombardi and said, “it’s like we’ve been fired and everyone knows it but us.” 
 
Lombardi eventually found two employees who agreed to staff a meeting the next night, September 28. We convinced the VSB’s former Superintendent, Dr Steve Cardwell, who now teaches and works at UBC, to come back as Acting Superintendent.
 
He was kind enough to drop everything and return to help stabilize the VSB. He was quickly joined by recent retired Secretary Treasurer, Rick Krowchuk, and everything was back under control. Or so it seemed. Then a few more Associate Superintendents went on leave.
 

It felt like a coup. But who was behind it?

It quickly became clear the large hand of the provincial government was involved. We were supposed to have spun into total disarray that week, clearing the way for government to roll in and take over and save us from the chaos.  
 
But with Cardwell and Krowchuk in place and other directors and district principals stepping up to take on additional responsibilities, the government-engineered chaos didn’t occur. It appeared to be a failed coup. Things were calming down. The Minister was not pleased.
 
At Cardwell’s advice, the board quickly voted to suspend the contentious school closure process. A week later the Richmond School Board followed the VSB’s lead, voting to terminate it’s also-controversial school closure process.
 
The Minister seemed pleased with the Richmond decision. The heat was off several Richmond Liberal MLAs who’d been under fire about the closures as they were headed for a provincial election campaign.
 
Bernier told the media “Richmond’s balanced budget and willingness to work together places them in a very different situation than what has happened with the Vancouver school board. We will continue working with the Richmond board on advancing seismic upgrades quickly as they finalize their long-term facility plan to identify priority schools.”
 
The next day Cardwell suggested the board reconsider its decision to pass the 2016/17 budget. Given Bernier’s statements linking passing a balanced budget to securing seismic upgrade funding, it seemed like the right move and the right time.
 
We let the Minister know Friday we’d be taking the budget to a vote on Monday, October 17 at 7 pm. This would be an olive branch — agreeing to pass the budget despite the deep cuts in order to be treated the same as Richmond was going to be. We thought this was what Bernier wanted all along: the approved budget.
 

At 11 am Monday, October 17, 2016 Bernier held a news conference and said he was dismissing the elected school board and replacing us with an appointed Trustee, Diane Turner. We never got to vote on the budget reconsideration.

 
There are still some mysteries to be solved. On September 28 Sherry Elwood, the President of the BC School Superintendents Association sent a letter to Bernier alleging the VSB had become “unstable and unpredictable” and seeking “direct intervention from the Ministry on behalf of our members who are caught in the cross fire of the political dynamics of the Vancouver School Board.”
 
Bernier asked WorkSafe to investigate and that investigation is ongoing. At a news conference he stated that he hoped Worksafe would call him and that he’d like them to speak to his hired Special Advisor, Milburn. It looked to me like he was attempting to interfere with what is supposed to be an independent investigation.
 
The contents of Milburn’s report haven't been released although Bernier said Monday that he received the completed report on Saturday, October 15. The board was briefed a few weeks ago regarding initial findings and told nothing new had been found and that there were no concerns of a forensic nature.
 
Bernier said Monday he can’t release it because of an investigation underway due a complaint I made with the BC Privacy Commissioner regarding the unredacted third-party information, but the commissioner is quoted saying “Staff have now confirmed an investigation is underway, but there's nothing keeping Bernier from releasing the audit results.”
 
 
After Horswill’s departure, VSB staff discovered full transcripts of board meetings in his office. We’ve never made transcripts of meetings although the recording secretaries keep audio tapes to ensure their minutes are accurate. Who made the transcripts? Why were they made?
 
There will no doubt be several more chapters to this story.
 

So what happens now? 

Vancouver voters have been disenfranchised and have no elected representation at the Vancouver School Board. The Board is now under the direct control of the Christy Clark government - a chilling prospect for anyone who is familiar with the Clark’s record on public education both as education minister and premier.
 

Clark is known for her glee at stoking BC's urban/rural divide.

 This has only intensified since her humiliating 2013 loss in Vancouver Point Grey to the BC NDP’s David Eby. 
 
Premier Christy Clark. Photo by The Canadian Press.
 
Despite Bernier’s multiple shots over the past year claiming the VSB “wastes” $37 million a year funding “empty seats” (it does not), yesterday he came out saying there won’t be any school closures for the time being.
 
This after his relentless pressure on the elected trustees to close schools — and take the blame for it. Now that government is in direct control he’s changed his tune. At least until after the May 9 election. Be very afraid about what happens after that if the Liberals win. Very.
 
What will the appointed Trustee do in the meantime?

 

What happens now?

Watch for VSB land sales.

Bernier already set the stage for this with a June letter to the VSB exempting the Kingsgate Mall site (owned by the VSB and leased to the Beedie Group) from section 100 of the BC School Act that says proceeds from capital asset sales can only be used for capital — not for operating costs. 

Also, watch for attempts to break collective agreements and contract out services like custodial, cafeterias, grounds work and other facility services. This idea was raised in a 2012 Deloitte Report entitled “BC Ministry of Education and School Districts Service Delivery Transformation"
 
The Deloitte report notes “The opportunities for facilities and capital management/delivery represent the largest opportunity areas for the K- 12 sector.”
 
And by opportunities they mean cost savings. “Increasing the productivity of the current facilities management functions of maintenance and custodial services to industry and provincial productivity benchmarks for similar services presents a significant opportunity.
 
Achieving productivity consistent with industry benchmarks for facilities management could result in savings from $60M to $150M”, the report states, also noting that implementation will require a “willingness by school boards to embrace a new model of service delivery.”
 
The appointed trustee will have to hold at least some public meetings and parents and stakeholder groups will demand to continue to have a voice. I suspect the government will help the appointed trustee find some funds to restore some services at least for the short term, to make them look good and the fired board look bad. The long term is what scares me most.
 
The Education Minister has the option to call a by-election and let Vancouver voters decide who they want representing them on their school board. My bet is he won’t.
 

This all seems to be heading in one direction — increased privatization of K-12 education in BC.

Watch for even more public funding and education and tax policy changes to benefit private schools while public schools grapple with crumbling infrastructure and insufficient operating funding.

The BC Liberals have been working for years to undermine public confidence in what is actually one of the world’s best public school systems.

They’ve eroded it through underfunding and destabilized it through bitter battles with the BCTF (their long-running court battle still to be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada). Cabinet documents included in the original BC Supreme Court Case even documented their discussion of provoking a strike to frustrate and inconvenience parents.

If the Liberals win the May election, the appointed trustee will be there until at least November 2018, the next municipal election date. 

Will there even be school board elections in 2018? 

That’s a question all of BC should be asking.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to advocate for students and families and stand up for their right to quality public education. I will work to hold the appointed Trustee accountable while Vancouver voters are disenfranchised and denied their right to be represented by the people they elected. 
 
I’m proud of our public schools and the incredible and dedicated people who work in them. They need our support and they need increased funding. 
 
Thank you to everyone who has been sending messages of support. It’s been an honour to serve. Stay tuned.
 
Contact the writer: @pattibacchus - twitter

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