The B.C. government has fired all nine elected trustees of the Vancouver School Board, dealing a further blow to a system rocked by months of conflict, a contentious debate over school closings and recent allegations of workplace bullying.
The decision, announced Monday by B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier, came the same day the board had planned to formally approve a balanced budget – in the process, removing one of the sticking points between the board and the government in recent months.
But the minister fired the board before that vote could take place, saying he had no confidence the trustees would do their job.
"It is impossible to have any confidence that a potential last-minute change of position on the district budget signals a fundamental change in the attitude which has so far led the board to refuse to follow the law," Mr. Bernier told reporters.
The mass firing is the latest twist in a running battle between the provincial government and the board, which is one of the largest school districts in the province and arguably the highest profile. It has about 54,000 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 and, up until Monday, was run by a board that repeatedly called on the B.C. Liberal government to put more money into provincial education.
The funding debate boiled over in April, when the board voted to reject a preliminary budget for 2016-2017, saying the more than $20-million in cuts it contained were too deep. At the same time, the board was resisting pressure to close schools with declining enrolment and battling with the provincial government over funding to make schools better withstand earthquakes.
The budget vote was largely symbolic, as boards are not allowed to run a deficit. Staff made the cuts and the proposed budget was implemented anyway.
But under provincial regulations, school trustees are required to pass a balanced budget by June 30 of each year. Instead of dismissing the trustees when that deadline passed, the province appointed a special adviser to review the board's governance and finances.
Mr. Bernier said the adviser's report cemented his intention to get rid of the board.
"The information in that report does not alleviate any of the concerns I have – it actually only deepens the concerns," he said.
However, Mr. Bernier said he could not release that report or even talk about its contents because of a continuing privacy investigation – yet another process that was triggered earlier this month after a trustee raised concerns that confidential information related to students and parents may have been provided to the special adviser.
On another front, allegations emerged earlier this month that senior staff in the district were facing an unstable, unpredictable work environment that creates a "toxicity" that fosters fear and a lack of sense of safety. WorkSafe BC, the agency that oversees claims of workplace bullying, is investigating.
The controversies over the budget and the bullying allegations have also overshadowed a bitter debate about potential school closings. The province had tied money for seismic upgrades to enrolment – which trustees said left them no other choice but to close as many as 11 schools, largely on the city's east side. The province eliminated the enrolment targets late last month.
The board was made up of nine trustees: four affiliated with the municipal Vision Vancouver party, four with the NPA and one with the Green Party.
Vision trustees said they were shocked and disappointed.
"I was elected as a trustee by the citizens of Vancouver and I will continue to tirelessly advocate for public education," former board chair Mike Lombardi told reporters at a news conference. "I will do whatever I can to continue to build support for adequate funding for public education in Vancouver and B.C."
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who ran on the Vision banner, says he's "extremely disappointed" the B.C. government has fired the Vancouver school board, calling it an undemocratic measure that comes as the board was about to pass a balanced budget Monday.
"They were democratically elected here in Vancouver to represent our kids and our schools," Mr. Robertson told reporters after an unrelated event in Vancouver. "I believe they can do the best job for our kids and were fighting to keep our schools open. This is very, very disappointing."
This is the 10th time the provincial government has dismissed an elected school board since 1965.
The province has named former Delta school district superintendent Dianne Turner to serve as official trustee for the Vancouver district. Ms. Turner has been appointed for a one-year term, which could be extended.
With a report from Ian Bailey