Rookie school board chair resigns amid speculation of backroom maneuvers

Although Christopher Richardson has given little explanation for his surprise resignation as chair on Monday, a quick review of the past several days offers clues as to why he stepped aside.

Christopher Richardson steps down as VSB chair
Christopher Richardson has stepped down as chair of the Vancouver School Board.

It’s not easy being chair of the Vancouver school board, especially when you’re a rookie trustee with a nice-guy reputation and trying to lead a highly political board with split loyalties.

Although Christopher Richardson has given little explanation for his surprise resignation as chair on Monday, a quick review of the past several days offers clues as to why he stepped aside.

One week before his resignation, the government released a special advisor’s review, ordered by Education Minister Peter Fassbender, of the board’s finances. While the report didn’t uncover dirt, it recommended the closure of as many as 19 schools.

School closures are often heart-rending, and Fassbender indicated that he expects action.

There were also concerns among some trustees about how the Ernst & Young report was released. The minister offered to brief Richardson, but only Richardson, the night before he made the report public, and there is conflicting information about whether he was given the full document or only a summary.

If it was the former, the NPA chair didn’t share it with his Vision Vancouver colleagues. They said they didn’t see the report until it was released publicly.

Then, later in the week, Richardson caused a kerfuffle at city council when he offered the school board’s support for proposed regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver, while also making recommendations for change.

As reported by the Vancouver Courier, he was quickly challenged by Vision Vancouver councillors who knew his presentation had not been approved by the school board, only by a board committee. Richardson sounded confused, and then admitted his presentation had only committee approval, but he couldn’t recall which trustees were members of that committee.

“Good grief,” tweeted former board chair Patti Bacchus as she learned of the rookie error. “Decisions need to be made by (the) board at actual board meetings. We have at least two per month.”

There have been other rough patches too, which isn’t surprising given that Richardson, an accountant and an outsider, was not savvy about the processes or the politics of the Vancouver school district. His experience as a Vancouver Park Board commissioner was apparently inadequate preparation for such a high profile position.

Indeed, it often seemed as though Bacchus, a skilled communicator and experienced politician, was still the board chair as she has remained the go-to person for reporters seeking a quick, pithy quote on any education topic, especially if it involves criticism of the provincial government.

Richardson, meanwhile, struggled to keep the peace among four of his own NPA trustees, four Vision Vancouver trustees, including three with much more experience than him, and one Green trustee, Janet Fraser, with the balance of power.

There have also been hints of NPA infighting and concerns among his colleagues about how he was handling things. Some say it wore him down.

 “It’s a tough job, and probably tougher now with a split board,” said Bacchus, who was chair from 2008 until Richardson was elected to replace her in December.

She was also a brand new trustee when first elected chair but she had accumulated extensive experience as a parent activist and representative on school board committees. Furthermore, Vision Vancouver trustees had a comfortable majority on the board at that time.

Bacchus knew the landscape. Vancouver’s different from other boards, she mused Tuesday. “It’s intense. The public engagement is intense and the media attention is intense.”

So, too, are the politics. While some B.C. school trustees see their job as managers, Vision Vancouver trustees believe they are also responsible for advocating for public education, Bacchus said. With a split board, that often means conflict.

Compounding the internal squabbles are the challenges of dealing with a provincial government that seems intent on bringing the Vancouver board to heel. Richardson had hoped for a better relationship with the Liberals than the one that existed with Bacchus at the helm, but it wasn’t so simple.

He clashed publicly with Fassbender over the pace of seismic upgrades, the minister’s decision to appoint a special advisor to review the board’s books and the government’s insistence that the board has an unrestricted surplus of $28 million.

In stepping down, an emotional Richardson said he was acting in the best interest of the board, but didn’t elaborate. Fraser will take his place until June 24, when trustees are expected to elect a new chairperson.

Janet Steffenhagen was the education reporter for the Vancouver Sun for 16 years and is now a freelance writer specializing in education issues.

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