With just over 200 days until a much-anticipated provincial election, the B.C. Liberals played a surprise political card Monday by firing the elected members of the Vancouver School Board.
The move, downright cruel in its timing, shows the B.C. government is willing to put cynical and divisive politics above public education. With few seats to lose in the City of Vancouver, the right-wing provincial government clearly thinks it can gain politically province-wide by ripping the bandage off of a wound that school board trustees have spent months working in good faith to heal. Full disclosure: My eldest child just started kindergarten this fall in Vancouver, so my visceral outrage is both parental and political.
The VSB’s deadline for passing a balanced budget was June 30. Consultations and negotiations have been ongoing for months, and the board was widely understood to have reached a compromise allowing it to finally pass its budget. The vote was set for 7 p.m. PDT Monday night.
However, Monday morning, just hours before the vote was to take place, B.C. Liberal Education Minister Mike Bernier held a press conference to announce that all nine members of the VSB had been fired. Bernier claimed the firing was due to the board missing its June 30 deadline for approving a balanced budget, and the minister also made reference to a recent audit of the board and allegations of a “toxic” work environment.
The entire nine-person board has been replaced by Dianne Turner, who was just hired by the government in July as chief educator for the province.
A step forward for Vancouver. Well respected educator Dianne Turner has been appointed as official trustee for Van Shool District.— Mike Bernier (@Mike_A_Bernier) October 17, 2016
The response to Bernier’s move has been swift and loud.
The chair of the VSB, Vision Vancouver trustee Mike Lombardi, slammed the provincial government in a statement announcing a press conference Monday afternoon: "Education Minister Mike Bernier’s outrageous political decision to unilaterally fire the democratically elected Vancouver School Board is the wrong decision for kids, for parents, and for communities. The people of Vancouver elected trustees to stand up for public education, not to do the provincial government’s dirty work of closing schools, cutting programs, and selling off public assets address a budget shortfall of their own making."
The NDP, who are the Official Opposition in B.C., condemned the firings. Vancouver-Kingsway MLA Adrian Dix blasted the move by the Liberals as “toxic.”
Labour leaders joined the chorus denouncing the move by the provincial government. Aaron Ekman, secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour, wrote on Twitter that the firing of duly elected representatives revealed a “crisis of democracy” in the province.
When a BCLib minister fires an elected municipal board and replaces it with his own hired guns, we have a serious crisis of democracy #bced— Aaron Ekman (@aaronekman) October 17, 2016
The VSB has long been among the most vocal of local school boards in B.C. The current board was composed of four elected trustees from Vision Vancouver, four from the Non-Partisan Association, and a lone trustee from the Green Party, who held the balance of power.
Advocates accuse the B.C. government of systematically underfunding public education, despite the government’s much-touted budget surpluses. Alex Hemingway, policy analyst for the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote about the shortcomings and contradictions of the province’s approach to education earlier this year:
Although Vancouver has been the most visible example, at least half of BC’s local school boards have faced budget crises this year, with many forced to close schools and impose other cutbacks to balance their budgets as required by provincial law.
Meanwhile, following a familiar strategy of concealing taxes by calling them “fees,” the education system continues to rely on parents to fundraise for things like playgrounds, classroom technology and hot lunches, and to pay a growing array of fees for field trips, supplies and transportation. Teachers continue to subsidize school funding by paying large sums out-of-pocket for classroom supplies. Most concerning, class sizes are growing and classrooms host an increasing number of students with learning challenges or other special needs — with too few staff and resources made available to support them.
Public education has been central to ideological conflict in B.C. politics for decades. In the 1980s, the right-wing Social Credit provincial government fired the left-leaning VSB. (For a broader history of battles over public education in B.C., check out Crawford Kilian’s piece from several years ago in The Tyee.)
Only the timing of this latest flashpoint in Vancouver comes as a surprise, since the minister decided to announce the board’s dismissal just as they were about to meet the provincial government’s demands and vote on a balanced budget.
For much of last spring, the threat of firing loomed over the VSB trustees as they were forced to announce a list of schools for possible closure. In response, parents and neighbourhood organizations launched campaigns throughout the city to oppose school closures. The province continued to assert that cuts and closures were necessary due to declining enrollment in the district, while public education advocates responded that the goal of a 95 per cent utilization rate for schools was unreasonable and indeed much higher than other provinces.
In June, I wrote in my regular B.C. politics column for The Source about the absurdity of this conflict in a province as well-heeled as B.C.:
Zooming out from Vancouver, the question for B.C. as a whole is why on earth would a province this wealthy neglect, or indeed dismantle piecemeal, its public education system? As they say, a fish rots from the head.
Premier Christy Clark’s son attends one of B.C.’s most expensive, posh private schools. The children of this province’s elite and a big chunk of the decision-makers go to private school. So part of the problem is just that too many of the people in charge are disconnected from the families they claim to be representing. Their kids enjoy the benefits of small class size and super-resourced libraries and labs. In fact, B.C.’s budget surplus for 2016 is projected to come in at a whopping $1.9 billion. That’s all the more reason this firing reeks of politics.
We can only hope this ham-fisted move backfires on the B.C. Liberals. The fired school trustees earned the votes of the people of Vancouver in 2014. They have done nothing to warrant this abrupt dismissal. They have earned, and deserve, our respect and solidarity for their advocacy of public education in the face of this capricious and mean-spirited provincial government.
This article was updated on Oct. 17, 1:23 p.m. PDT, to incorporate the comments from VSB chair Mike Lombardi.