B.C. government’s “forensic audit” of the VSB turned up nothing “forensic” and it wasn’t an “audit”. So what was it?

OPINION: The VSB protested more deep cuts to public schools by refusing to approve a budget with more reductions to classrooms and services. Education Minister Mike Bernier decided not to fire them right away, but instead ordered a "forensic audit" of the VSB. Forensic implies something criminal or fraudulent, but they found nothing of the sort at the VSB. So what was this all about?

Education Minister Mike Bernier announces of "forensic" audit of the VSB
When Vancouver School Trustees refused to approve more cuts to the budget for the 2016/17 school year, Education Minister Mike Bernier launched a forensic investigation into their spending - which was all in order. Photo courtesy B.C. Gov Photos/flickr.

Last April the Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustees took a stand against the B.C. Liberals’ long-standing practice of underfunding public education. They put their jobs on the line by refusing to do what the B.C. School Act requires them to do – approve a balanced operating budget and submit it to the Minister of Education by June 30.

That decision followed four weeks of public consultation on a budget proposal developed by VSB management that proposed a series of cuts in order to balance a budget that had a $24 million funding shortfall.

Throughout the consultation parents, students, community members and employee groups had made it clear: the proposed cuts were too deep and enough was enough. It was time to say ”no”.

The board’s annual budget vote was scheduled for April 28. Trustees knew that if they voted against the budget the Minister of Education, Mike Bernier, would probably fire them and replace them with a government appointee.

This happened in 1985 when the VSB refused to pass a balanced budget, and had also happened in North Vancouver and Cowichan school districts. No one could recall a time a board refused to pass a balanced budget without getting fired.

I was one of the five trustees who voted “no” on April 28. My Vision Vancouver colleagues and the lone Green trustee did too, while the four NPA trustees raised their hands to vote in favour of approving the budget.

I knew there was a good chance we’d be fired, but I also knew we had strong public support and that government would be nervous about firing us just a year before a provincial election.

The last chance we had to meet our School Act requirement to approve the balanced operating budget — and the deep cuts it contained — was at a June 29, 2016 “special board meeting.”

The sole item of the evening’s agenda was the “2016/17” operating budget.  

VSB Chair Mike Lombardi had called the June 29 meeting in response to an 11th-hour proposal from Bernier suggesting the VSB sell the Kingsgate Mall site (owned by the board and leased to the Beedie Development Group) and use some of the proceeds to make up some of its provincial funding shortfall.

Bernier even went so far as to unilaterally declare the B.C. School Act’s Section 100’s sensible rule that proceeds from sales of capital assets — like former school lands, which the Kingsgate site is — can only be used for capital projects (and not for operating costs) would not be applied in the case.

“The property in question was the site of Mount Pleasant Elementary, which was built between 1890 and 1892, and since demolished. Neither the Province nor VSB can identify any records which outline the manner in which the property was acquired or the acquisition financed. Taking account of all of the circumstances, it is my view that section 100 of the School Act does not apply to this particular situation.

As a result, VSB will not be constrained by section 100,” Bernier stated in a June 28, 2016 letter to Lombardi.

Selling off your capital assets to fund your operating costs is a mug's game

Now, I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if a cabinet minister can simply override legislation with a letter. But I’m also not an idiot and I know that selling off your capital assets to pay your operating costs is short-term thinking — a mug’s game. But it seems Bernier thought we’d go for it.

The VSB had warned Bernier by letter that since the VSB was in complex negotiations with the Kingsgate site’s leaseholder about potential redevelopment and a new lease structure, he shouldn’t be discussing it in public due to the risk of compromising the board’s negotiating position.

The Board met in camera  June 29 to consider Bernier’s proposal. While trustees are forbidden to disclose what happens in those kind of meetings, we did agree to having Lombardi read out the following statement during the public meeting that followed that evening:

“In a private meeting of the Vancouver School Board today, I was authorized to make the following statement out of the meeting:

"The Vancouver School Board has rejected the proposal from the Ministry of Education to use $5.59 million of future VSB capital asset sale proceeds to address some of the district’s 2016/2017 budget shortfall. The proposal did not include any additional provincial funding.”

As expected, Bernier called a news conference the next morning and said he was surprised the board didn’t go for “the province’s offer to allow the board to sell its ownership in Kingsgate shopping mall” and use the proceeds for operating costs and said he  wasn’t going to fire us but instead he was launching “a full, in-depth forensic audit” of VSB.

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