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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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Take the case of W.P. Argue, appointed as "Vancouver City Superintendent" in 1903. According to Fleming, Argue’s “career, however, was eventually undermined more by what The Sun newspaper called the ‘old unkindness between the Vancouver school board and the Victoria department’ than by his own administrative actions. Argue, in fact, became a casualty of war, caught in the political crossfire surrounding the issue of local autonomy — an issue which had haunted the provincial system from its inception and which has continued to divide senior and local governments to this day.”

The first VSB meeting I went to was in 1985 when I was a Langara journalism student.

They sent me to cover a board meeting held by a lone, government appointee after the elected board was fired by the government for refusing to pass a balanced budget that would have resulted in deep cuts to staffing and services.

Sound familiar?

Which brings me back to the important business of hiring superintendents.

Turner's political theatre

Dianne Turner, the B.C. Liberal government’s appointed trustee for the VSB, announced Robinson’s departure at a media briefing last week, which to my knowledge was a first.

Typically, superintendent departures are announced by a board statement sent out to the media and posted on the district’s website. From the various reports I saw, the briefing was an act of pure political theatre on Turner’s part and a solid argument for ensuring elected trustees govern school districts.

Turner is herself a superintendent, on “secondment” from the Delta school district where she received $257,198 for the year ending in June 2016, according to B.C. government financial reports.

Her briefing had nothing to do with the interests of students — who’ve been shortchanged for years by constant budget cutting and the loss of programs like elementary band and strings, reduced support for students with special needs and over-crowded classrooms.

It had nothing to do with parents, who’ve been advocating for restored funding and fighting threats of school closures for years along with fundraising for classroom needs and pleading for seismically high-risk schools to be upgraded.

It had nothing to do with front-line staff who’ve been asked to do more with less for years in increasingly complex classrooms. It had nothing do with making sure the district is actively hiring the best teachers out there to fill the many vacancies that leave schools short staffed and without substitutes when they’re needed. It wasn’t about how the district was doing everything it could to comply with the teachers’ court-restored contract language in time for a smooth start up in September.

It wasn’t about making progress on school seismic upgrades, that are way behind schedule for many schools, leaving thousands of students and hundreds of staff members to spend their school days in seismically high-risk buildings.

It was about the concerns of the highest-paid administrators in the district for their job security if the fired trustees returned. Good grief.

(For an idea about why they might be worried, check out my first Vancouver Observer piece that chronicles what happened in lead up to the board’s firing.)

Next steps

An appointed trustee — who is a school superintendent herself — with no mandate from Vancouver voters should not hire the district’s next superintendent.

Premier-in-waiting John Horgan needs to make it clear that only an elected board can hire a superintendent. He’s promised to call a by-election as soon as possible and Turner needs to hold off and let whomever is elected make that decision.

If she proceeds on her own, although it doesn’t sound like she plans to, the superintendent she hires could be put in a very difficult position once a new board is in place. That could be a costly mistake for the district if Turner signs a contract with a generous payout provision.

An elected board will focus on recruiting a candidate for superintendent who is committed to developing positive, collaborative relationships with stakeholder groups to ensure the work of the district is focused on meeting the needs of students and providing them with the best opportunities and support possible. 

The successful candidate will understand the complex political environment and their role within it, which is to support the work of the board and carry out its strategic plan and policies and provide it with non-partisan, professional advice. 

In the meantime, the district can get by with an acting superintendent as it did last fall.



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