The Vancouver School Board has suspended its contentious school closure process, a surprise move that comes at the same time WorkSafeBC investigates allegations of bullying and harassment that have prompted six senior staff members to go on medical leave.
British Columbia’s Education Minister called the situation at the board “unprecedented” and said he remains open to removing trustees from their posts.
“That’s something that I will still be seriously considering,” Mike Bernier told a news conference on Tuesday, though he said he would await WorkSafeBC’s findings before making any decisions.
The board’s decision to suspend the closure process at 11 schools came one week after it voted to proceed with public consultations, and just a few days after allegations of a toxic workplace arose. The board, which is currently undergoing an audit, has repeatedly sparred with the provincial government over its budget and refusal to close schools. Its chair abruptly stepped down from his position last year.
Mike Lombardi, the board’s current chair, told reporters more than once Tuesday the hiring of an acting superintendent and acting secretary-treasurer have brought stability to the organization.
He said the reversal on the school closure process stemmed from the province’s recent shift on utilization targets, and not the fact senior staff members are on leave. Mr. Lombardi also said the pressure that has been put on staff was the result of underfunding by the provincial government.
When asked if Vancouver residents should still have confidence in the board, Mr. Lombardi replied: “I’m very confident that the people of Vancouver elected us and they have faith in us to carry out our responsibilities, to focus on teaching and learning and student success.”
WorkSafeBC said it will be proceeding with an investigation under the Workers Compensation Act, which provides the organization with the authority to “hold employers accountable for managing the health and safety of their workplaces, including for bullying and harassment.”
WorkSafeBC did not indicate when its investigation would be complete, but Mr. Bernier said he hoped it would be soon.
The minister said the fact six senior staff members have had to go on medical leave is “disheartening.”
Of the school closure process, Mr. Bernier said the Vancouver School Board’s refusal to make decisions regularly has him shaking his head.
“I think at some point parents have to start saying, ‘Enough is enough. Start doing your jobs,’” he said.
The Education Minister said one possible explanation for the board’s decision to suspend the school closure process is the pushback it received from residents.
“The Vancouver School Board was going through a consultation process. They were receiving lots of criticism about how they were rolling out that consultation process,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate after all of this time and all of the stress that they’ve put on students and parents that they would really out of nowhere in my opinion cancel that process.”
Mr. Lombardi, of Vision Vancouver, said the board’s decision to suspend the school closure process was the result of the province’s move two weeks ago to drop capacity utilization targets from the process it uses to determine when to build new schools or fix ones already in use.
He said the board’s vote last week to proceed with public consultations came before the impact of the province’s move had sunk in.
“The school closure consultation process was working on a very tight timeline and many parents and community members and others expressed numerous concerns about details of the process,” he said.
The board voted to suspend the school closure process Monday night. The four Vision Vancouver trustees and the lone Green Party trustee voted to suspend the process. Four members of the Non-Partisan Association voted to abstain.
Penny Noble, a trustee with the NPA, said she was “flabbergasted” the suspension was even brought up.
“We’ve spent many, many months as a group, all trustees together, reviewing a variety of proposals, statistics, background information, and asking tough questions, to get to a point where we had a report that outlined some recommendations for the potential school closure process,” she said in an interview.
“Not a happy thing to do, but we had gone through this exhaustive process. I was shocked that we would simply abandon that process,” she said.
Fraser Ballantyne, also with the NPA, said he, too, was caught off-guard by the call for a suspension of the school closure process. He said there is a cost to not making a decision and the board should keep that in mind.
Both Ms. Noble and Mr. Ballantyne said they did not have details about the allegations of bullying and harassment. Mr. Lombardi said he was not aware of any direct complaints against trustees.
Janet Fraser, a Green Party trustee who voted in favour of suspension, said her vote did not involve utilization targets.
“My primary concern was that, with our senior staff on leave, we don’t have the capacity to handle the consultation process,” she said in an interview.
The Vancouver School Board and the provincial government have a history of disputes over budgeting and the issue of school closures. In 2010, the board initially refused to pass a balanced budget, prompting the province to appoint a special adviser to review the board's finances. That led to speculation the board could be fired, but instead trustees reluctantly passed a balanced budget.
The board was fired in the early 1980s when it refused to pass a restraint budget as dictated by the province.
With a report from Andrea Woo
Here is a look at the different players in the continuing controversies overshadowing the Vancouver School Board.
The Vancouver School Board last week named Steve Cardwell acting superintendent after what the VSB unions called the “sudden and unanticipated departures” of both superintendent Scott Robinson and secretary-treasurer Russell Horswill. Mr. Cardwell had previously served as VSB superintendent from January, 2010, until December, 2014.
Mr. Robinson had previously served as associate-superintendent for the district; Mr. Horswill had previously served as secretary-treasurer for the Comox Valley School District.
Chair Mike Lombardi; trustees Patti Bacchus, Allan Wong and Joy Alexander. Ms. Bacchus, an outspoken school advocate, was chair from 2008 until 2014, often serving as the board’s public face. She was ousted in December, 2014, when Green trustee Janet Fraser cast a deciding vote for NPA trustee Christopher Richardson. Ms. Fraser said at the time she wanted to reflect the public’s desire for change following a municipal election that saw Vision lose its majority on the board.
The Non-Partisan Association
Trustees Mr. Richardson, Fraser Ballantyne, Stacy Robertson and Penny Noble. Mr. Richardson resigned as chair in June, 2015, citing “deeply personal” and private reasons. Mr. Ballantyne was elected his replacement, serving until December, 2015, when power went back to Vision with the election of Mr. Lombardi.
As the lone Green trustee, Janet Fraser holds the balance of power among the four Vision and four NPA trustees. She has twice cast the deciding vote for NPA chairs, with Mr. Richardson and Mr. Ballantyne, and most recently tipped the ball back in Vision’s court with a deciding vote for Mr. Lombardi. This summer, Ms. Fraser sided with Vision trustees who said they were prepared to lose their jobs in protest of what they say is the chronic underfunding of public education by the B.C. Liberal government.
The School District
The Vancouver School District (School District No. 39) is one of the largest school districts in B.C., serving roughly 54,000 kindergarten to Grade 12 students. It has been one of the most visible districts in a long-standing, often-bitter feud with the provincial government over issues such as funding and seismic upgrades.
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