New schools, seismic upgrades, French Immersion and band programs among issues VSB candidates to face in by-election

Voters will have lots of questions for candidates running in the VSB by-election. Here’s what the VSB’s longest-serving chair thinks the top issues will be.

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Parents living downtown in the Coal Harbour area or the Olympic Village and its surrounding neighbourhoods, or even the South Fraser Lands “River District”, are fed up with having to drive their kids long distances or enter lotteries to get into their local schools. VSB candidates need to tell voters what they’re going to do about that.

In other parts of the city where there’s surplus school space, communities are going to be asking candidates about preserving neighbourhood schools, or their plans for repurposing or selling them. Expect Renfrew-Collingwood voters to have lots of questions about what will happen to the Carleton Elementary site, where the school’s sat vacant and damaged following a suspicious fire last summer.

After years of cuts under the BC Liberal government, pressure will be on candidates to tell voters if they’ll bring back the much-loved elementary band and strings program that was cut in the 2016/17 budget approved by appointed trustee Turner.

They’ll also need to say whether they’ll restore the French Immersion seats Turner cut for this year and whether they’ll commit to expanding access to the popular program.

The gap between graduation rates for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students has narrowed since 2008, but it’s still much too wide. Voters will be asking what candidates will do to achieve equity of outcomes for all students.

I heard from a lot of parents of students with special needs who were struggling to get the support and opportunities their kids needed to be successful at school during my eight-year run as a trustee. With hundreds of new teaching positions being restored, including many specialist positions, voters will want assurance all kids will benefit, including those with special learning needs. Where will the candidates stand on this? Many parents will want to know.

Poverty continues to affect a large proportion of Vancouver students as families struggle with high housing and child care costs. It’s tough to learn on an empty stomach that’s roiling with the anxiety of having a stressed parent and unstable housing. There’s a lot schools can do to support those kids and candidates will need a plan for this and ideas to ensure equity among all schools.

Relationships at the VSB — particularly between the board and senior managers and between unions and senior managers — were left in tatters after the BC Liberal government sent “special advisor” Peter Milburn and a team from EY in to do a “forensic audit” of the VSB last year.

As part of that process, the Milburn/EY team asked VSB senior managers to give them access to trustee emails and audio recordings of confidential meetings, presumably in an attempt to find something incriminating (they apparently didn’t find anything useful despite all the breakage).

The rub was that while senior managers work for the board — not the government — they handed over access to emails and confidential board recordings and records without the board’s consent or knowledge.

When the trustees learned about this in late September, several senior staff members — including the superintendent of schools — booked off on extended leaves and didn’t come back until months after the trustees were fired. Some have since left the district but a few are still there.

Four days after the superintendent booked off, bullying allegations against the board surfaced in a letter that found its way to Global television before the trustees knew anything about it. Those allegations and the fall out from a controversial report about it reverberate through the district’s head office to this day.

Trustee candidates will need to be able to tell voters whether they’ll still ask the hard questions voters want asked when it comes to tough decisions like cutting programs and closing schools, or whether they’ll support bureaucrats’ recommendations and defer to their expertise over constituents’ concerns, as the Goldner report seems to recommend.

The first time I was elected — in 2008 — I was disappointed to discover how poor relationships were between some senior managers and union representatives. From what I could see, that was an expensive and dysfunctional problem that had real costs — in terms of grievances and arbitrations and poor decision making — the VSB simply couldn’t afford.

We worked hard as a board to direct senior staff to make improved, collaborative relationships a priority and to ensure all stakeholders' input was treated respectfully and was valued. We worked hard alongside the senior managers to repair and restore relationships — with good results. Unfortunately, as I wrote last week, those relationships have since broken down and need to be repaired.

Part of that work will involve a plan to proactively recruit and retain staff, and in particular, teachers. Teachers are now in demand across B.C. and the VSB may find itself struggling to attract and keep good teachers who can now find work in communities with lower housing costs. Will candidates see that as a priority, and if they do, how will they go about it?

It’s interesting and enjoyable to watch a campaign take shape from the sidelines after running in the last three school board elections. I’ll be watching and weighing in over the weeks to come.

Next week I’ll take a closer look at the candidates. See you then.






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