Vancouver school closings are off the table as a new government-appointed trustee turns her attention to the overdue budget and the staff crisis she has inherited, Education Minister Mike Bernier says.
On Tuesday, Dianne Turner took up her new post in charge of one of the province's largest school boards, responsible for 53,000 students and a $438-million budget. Appointed on Monday by Mr. Bernier to replace an elected board of nine trustees because of a budget standoff, Ms. Turner is wading into an allegedly toxic work environment where at least half a dozen senior administrators are on medical leave. According to the BC School Superintendents Association, senior administrators are off due to "untenable" working conditions where they faced job insecurity and "hour by hour direction of their work" by the now-fired elected trustees.
Mr. Bernier told reporters Tuesday he has been assured that Ms. Turner does not intend to reopen debate on school closings – although she will still need to grapple with declining enrolment.
"There is no school closure process taking place now in Vancouver for schools with students in them," Mr. Bernier said. Ms. Turner could not be reached for comment but the Education Minister said: "She confirmed to me today … she has too many other issues to focus on now."
The Vancouver School Board, locked into an education funding debate with the provincial government, had announced in June that 11 schools, mostly in Vancouver's east side, would be closed as of September, 2017. Two weeks ago, while still refusing to pass a balanced budget, the trustees announced those schools would no longer face closing.
That decision will stand as Ms. Turner takes on other issues: She is expected to resolve the current staffing challenge, put together a new budget and produce a long-range facilities plan.
"Finally we are at a point where we are going to bring some stability for families and for students to Vancouver," Mr. Bernier said. He defended his decision to fire the elected board, saying members had created turmoil in the education system as part of a political war with his B.C. Liberal government. "The whole point of this [firing] was to make sure those political games we were seeing with the Vancouver School Board come to an end."
Mike Lombardi, who until Monday served as the chair of the Vancouver School Board, said in an interview Mr. Bernier's actions have created greater instability in the district.
"The instability was precipitated by the Minister of Education, and the turmoil was intensified … when a political appointee was put in place," he said. "The board was doing the job it was elected to do and I think Vancouver citizens will be calling for an immediate by-election."
Fired trustee Patti Bacchus said Mr. Bernier's intervention was unnecessary. The trustees had told the province they were prepared to finally pass a balanced budget – as required by law. She noted that the board had put in place acting administrators while senior staff were on leave, but those employees were fired along with the board. "I don't think the public will look kindly on being disenfranchised," she said. She predicted she and other elected trustees would easily win re-election if a by-election was held.
Mr. Bernier gave no hint of by-election plans, saying he expects Ms. Turner's appointment will take more than one year.
A balanced budget was due last June and he said he is prepared to give Ms. Turner some flexibility because she does not yet have staff in place.
He told reporters she has already started calling those staff who are on sick leave to ask whether they can come back to work now that the elected trustees are gone. The complaints of bullying are still under investigation by WorkSafeBC, but Mr. Bernier said she will have a difficult time putting together a new budget without the assistance of those senior employees. "My hope that anyone on sick leave gets well soon," he said.
SCHOOL BOARD DISMISSALS ARE NOT UNPRECEDENTED
The B.C. government's decision to fire the nine members of the Vancouver School Board isn't the first time the province has exercised its discretion to dismiss elected trustees and replace them with a bureaucrat. Here's a look at a few of the other times school trustees have lost their jobs in British Columbia.
June, 2016: North Okanagan-Shuswap
The Education Ministry cited financial mismanagement and a level of dysfunction that was "deteriorating rapidly" when it announced the board had been fired and replaced with a former superintendent of the Surrey school board. A report by a special adviser noted several trustees had already resigned and the decorum at meetings had deteriorated to the point where it was difficult to get any work done. The report also found the board transferred $10-million from its operating surplus to pay for capital projects such as a new school district office.
July, 2012: Cowichan Valley
The school board in the Cowichan Valley, on Vancouver Island, was dismissed for refusing to pass a balanced budget. Instead, trustees defiantly passed a budget with a $3.8-million deficit. Trustees argued provincial funding had fallen over the previous decade, even when taking declining enrolment into account, but the education minister at the time, George Abbott, said trustees were playing politics.
January, 1996: North Vancouver
School trustees on Vancouver's north shore lost their jobs after failing to get a growing deficit under control. A year earlier, the provincial government allowed the board to approve a budget with a $1.7-million deficit for 1994-95, on the condition that it would be eliminated in two years, but that number grew to $2.6-million. The board then estimated a deficit of $5-million for 1995-96 – prompting the education minister to dismiss the trustees.
May, 1985: Vancouver and Cowichan Valley
The school boards in Vancouver and Cowichan Valley were fired within days of each other after trustees in both districts refused to comply with provincial legislation aimed at restraining education spending. Vancouver rejected a demand to trim $14-million off its budget, while the smaller district of Cowichan Valley refused to cut $400,000. Five of the trustees in Vancouver sued, with their lawyer telling a B.C. Supreme Court judge that the education minister "pulled his atom bomb out of his hip pocket" and lobbed it at the school board. The court upheld the minister's decision.
With reports from The Canadian Press