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Help wanted for a super (tough) VSB job

With last week’s announcement that the Vancouver School Board’s superintendent is leaving, the preliminary work to find his replacement is already underway.

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That was especially important given that Robinson faced the extra challenge of working with a politically split board (four NPA trustees, four Vision Vancouver and one Green) with no clear majority. He needed to know he had our support. 

It's a tough job

It’s anything but a one-size-fits-all kind of gig. A superintendent who might work well with one board and successfully manage one district, may flounder in another.

A complex district like Vancouver, arguably rivaled only by a few of the large Canadian boards — Toronto District School Board, Peel School Board, York Region District School Board and Edmonton, Ottawa and Calgary — in terms of diversity and complex facility and planning challenges in highly political contexts, demands a great deal from its superintendents.

We’ve been fortunate to have some very good ones in Vancouver. As VSB chair, I worked closely with former superintendents Chris Kelly and Steve Cardwell and was awed by their ability to calmly, confidently and positively lead the district through perpetually stormy waters, rife with conflicting pressures, politics and inadequate funding.

They stayed focused on what matters most — doing everything possible to ensure every student had the best possible chances to succeed, and supporting the staff on the front lines who worked with kids. They navigated the political landscape well by giving the board the best professional advice they could offer and carrying out the policies and goals the board set. 

School board politics are nothing new

School boards are inherently political. They manage large budgets of the public’s money — the VSB’s annual operating budget is half a billion dollars — and own and manage large real estate portfolios with aging facilities. They make decisions that directly affect the daily lives of families and their kids. They employ thousands of people who are represented by multiple unions. That’s about as political a context as you can dream up.

How political? Try telling a community you’re thinking about closing a school that’s been operating in their neighbourhood for over a century because the provincial government is pressuring you to cut back on your facility capacity.

There’re good reasons for having elected school boards governing school districts, instead of bureaucrats or government appointees. Trustees are elected to put the interests of the students and the public front and centre, ensuring that public dollars are spent wisely to support student success and ensure all communities have thriving neighbourhood schools.

That sounds simple and obvious and it’s the crux of what politics is all about – how we allocate scarce or limited resources. In other words, who pays, who gets and who decides.

School superintendents find themselves smack dab in the middle of this complicated political web. This isn’t anything new — ‘twas thus for quite some time. But their roles are not political and require them to refrain from engaging in board politics.

And what a web it is. There’s the provincial government, which controls the rules through legislation, the funding and most of the costs. Then there’s the elected trustees, who have some limited, local decision making powers accorded to them under the provincial government, via legislation. Those trustees are under intense local pressure from their constituents. And then there are the superintendent’s staff and employee groups —  formidable forces in their own rights. Then of course there are the students and their parents, and the groups that represent them.

In his book, Worlds Apart: British Columbia Schools, Politics, and Labour Relations Before and After 1972, former University of Victoria professor Thomas Fleming recalls “The 1980s have been turbulent years for [B.C.]  school superintendents. Within a decade, 67 of the 129 men and women who have served as chief educational officers for the province's 75 school districts have left the superintendency to seek positions inside and outside British Columbia schools. This attrition, which has become a hallmark of the position, reached a high point in 1986 when approximately one-quarter of the superintendency corps were replaced. No doubt, many complex personal and professional factors shaped individual decisions to leave, or school board decisions to change leadership.”

And while there's often been much wringing of hands about whether the VSB is too political, history indicates it’s been that way for a long time — and likely will continue to be.

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