Political smear or necessary investigation?

After six senior VSB managers including the CEO/superintendent all went on “indefinite leave” in September, someone leaked two letters to several news media outlets alleging a toxic work environment that left senior executives feeling fearful.

Patti Bacchus was one of the VSB trustees who was fired. This is her analysis.

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If true, this would compound the social injustice of the B.C. Liberals’ 2002 “school choice” policy brought in when Christy Clark was education minister.

The motion also allowed us to consider the impact of a major change in government’s position — that the VSB no longer had to show how it could reach 95-per-cent capacity utilization in its long-range facility plan.

The superintendent called it a “game changer” when Bernier made that surprise Sept. 21 announcement. The VSB and parent groups had been advocating it for several months. Vancouver Metro News reported on September 21:

The Vancouver School Board will no longer need to work toward a 95 per cent utilization rate in order to receive funding for seismic upgrades, Education Mike Bernier announced Wednesday afternoon.

The school district is in the midst of deciding which schools to close in its Long Range Facilities plan, which was largely based on reaching the 95 per cent utilization rate set by the province.

That board referred the motion to the next meeting to give staff time to determine the costs — if any — of revising the report.

During the debate a trustee asked the superintendent if there was a budget to do the revision. I argued — in support of the motion —the board didn’t usually approve individual budgets for staff reports.

I questioned if there was a budget allocated, for example, for the school closure consultation. The superintendent paused and replied that no, there wasn’t. Several people in the crowd laughed at this. I didn’t expect or intend that and I suspect that was a difficult moment for the superintendent and no doubt a tough evening overall. 

That was Monday night, September 26. The Elwood letter was dated Sept. 28 and the Byng letter Sept. 29. They apparently found their way to Keith Baldrey at Global on Sept. 30.

So here’s what we seem to have so far, by the numbers.

Zero: Complainants. While many people have been interviewed, none seem to have come forward as complainants. 

Zero: Respondents. While there were references to the “board” and allegations in the Elwood letter of “disruption, criticism and in some cases hour by hour direction” by trustees, it’s not clear whom or what specific actions she’s referring to. 

Zero:  Answers so far regarding why the six most senior VSB staff went on leave without telling the board why.

Zero: Students whose needs will be better met as a result of these investigations.

One plus one minus nine: One education minister appointed one trustee to replace nine trustees he fired on Oct. 17. 

Two: Investigations. One by the VSB and the other by WorkSafeBC.

Two-and-a-half: Months since the investigations began. 

Five-and-a-half: Months after the board refused to pass its budget that the Minister waited before firing the board — for not passing its budget.

Six: VSB senior staff went on leave during the last week of September. Two: Still off on leave. One: Got a job in another district. Three: Are back at work. 

Eight: Hours before the Oct. 17 meeting when the board was scheduled to reconsider its decision and finally pass the budget that Bernier fired the board — for not passing its budget.

Eleven: Schools were approved to move to consultation on potential closure (the board, however, voted in early October to suspend the closure process).

Twenty-two: Million dollars cut from the VSB budget to balance its budget this year. 

Thirty plus: People have been interviewed as witnesses — none are complainants, none are respondents. They seem to be looking hard for some. 

Ninety-five: Per cent – the average “capacity utilization” of schools the Ministry of Education told the VSB to reach via its Long-Range Facility Plan. That number, that bloody number, caused so much grief and stress for so many. 

As far as I’ve even been able to determine 95 was an arbitrary figure used to try to bludgeon large metro school districts into closing schools despite community opposition. 

The Richmond and Vancouver school boards went through many painful and exhausting months through the spring, summer and fall trying to figure out how to get there. And it didn’t just exhaust trustees and staff — it put kids, parents and communities through hell too. You can thank Christy Clark and Mike Bernier for that. 

Hundreds of thousands: My estimate of the number of dollars these two investigations will cost. 

Far-reaching and hard-to-calculate: The chill these investigations — regardless of their outcomes — could put on school trustees, city councillors, park board commissioners and other elected officials when it comes to questioning staff reports or asking for additional information.

I hope someone can make this all add up some day and something constructive comes of it. I also hope all staff members recover fully from whatever ails them. 

And if you feel a sense of déjà vu like I do, it may be because we recently got the results of the “forensic VSB audit” Bernier ordered at the end of June. It also resulted in two reports — one from Bernier’s appointed “Special Advisor” Peter Milburn and one from accounting firm EY. The number of forensic, criminal or fraudulent findings they found? Zero. 

Five: Months until the B.C. provincial election. 

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