Superintendent talks teachers' strike, school closures in Vancouver

Cardwell says there was 'very little succession planning before I arrived'

This week marks Steve Cardwell's two-year anniversary as superintendent of the Vancouver School Board. He talked to the Courier Wednesday.

Courier: What are some of the goals you've accomplished?

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Cardwell: There was very little succession planning before I arrived. By the end of this June I think the entire senior management team will have retired or moved on to other opportunities. One of the challenges was to build a whole new senior management team and to restructure because we were also facing some significant budgetary challenges. So at the same time as building a team of new faces, new people-a mix of internal and external people, I also downsized. That was, for me, one [accomplishment].

The other was working with the board and accomplishing a number of directions identified early on in my time here. One was the strategic plan. I arrived in Vancouver realizing that the board did not have a strategic plan in place and my views were consistent with the board at that time that we needed to engage in some dialogue about what are the key directions of the board and how we might go about establishing a baseline for future directions. The other areas that have come to pass over the past two years are an examination of whether or not we should entertain school closures. The opportunity was important to have_now we're embarking on a sectoral review and some innovative practices both in front and behind the scenes_that in the next few months, I think, will create great interest in the community.

Courier: Do you have new initiatives to introduce in coming months?

Cardwell: Connected with the B.C. Education Plan over this next year, moving to support ideas such as problem-based learning, project-based learning, will be a direction that I would like to see us work on with our teachers and move ahead on. There are instances of problem-based learning but more typically problem-based learning is where problems or projects are assigned as homework. Whereas [you can] take the curriculum, re-sort the curriculum, so it's not just math for an hour, science for an hour, fine arts for an hour. You actually have some meaningful projects that are part of the curriculum. Students can then engage in learning. Students can bring their passions to the problems-they could be global problems, they could be local problems, community-based problems.

Courier: This month PricewaterhouseCoopers starts its contract with the VSB. Why do you need to hire an outside contractor at a cost of $100,000 to come up with budget proposals? Some would argue you're well paid-as are the VSB's senior managers. Isn't this your job?

Cardwell: I don't think it's anything to do with our salaries. It's an external set of eyes from experts outside of the school district who've worked with other large jurisdictions, other large school districts across Canada, to analyze approaches and to offer some possible ideas around how to deal with some very challenging budget situations. _[each year] it becomes more and more difficult to find a way to balance the budget. We need to be as strategic as possible. It's not strategic when we ask each of our departments to find five per cent [to cut]. It's more strategic if we look at, perhaps, a zero-based budget. It's starting with what are the essential components of a school district and what do you need to offer support for teaching and learning in schools, driven through collective agreements and legislative requirements, and then curriculum needs. That's probably a better approach.

Courier: The teachers' job action has been going on without any significant movement on a contract. How worried should parents be about a full-on strike? Should they start preparing?

Cardwell: It's hard to predict. Both sides-the provincial government though its bargaining agent, and the BCTF are at an impasse and that has precipitated the teachers' strike that we're experiencing-it's a teach-only campaign. It's a challenge for the school district, no question. Will that lead to a full withdrawal of service? It's hard to say. At this point we know that there has been no progress on either side. We hope for a negotiated settlement and then we can get on with some of the work we need to be doing.

Courier: But should parents start preparing?

Cardwell: I would say not. We've experienced job actions in the past and education is an essential service. Rulings have indicated if teachers do withdraw services it would not be for a prolonged length of time. And that's a bridge we should cross in the future-not in the immediate time.

Courier: What's been biggest effect of the job action?

Cardwell: For us it's been consultation-the need to be able to work with our teachers and talk with our teachers about educational change.

Courier: The moratorium on school closure processes officially ends in March. Board chair Patti Bacchus told the Courier before being re-elected she doesn't anticipate any scenarios that could convince a Vision/ COPE board to close schools. Are school closures really off the table? Cardwell: I can't speak for the board on this matter but we are reviewing our educational programs, as we do every year, and through the sectoral review [we're doing] a more in-depth community-based analysis of our educational programs. In our policies, if staff feel a school is surplus to our needs or a facility is surplus to our needs then we have a duty to bring that to the board for consideration. On the other hand, if we find some of our facilities are in need of expansion-and that's a very real possibility-then again we would want to bring that to the board for consideration.

Courier: Your interest in technology was one of the reasons you were hired. What's the status of Wi-Fi?

Cardwell: What we have done through an RFP process is we've gone out and looked at the infrastructure, the wireless environment, and identified potential vendors who would install the equipment. We're going to start with our high schools-that's where the greatest need might be and then work through elementary schools as the need might arise. We think [secondary schools] can be done within the year.

Courier: In a Q&A two years ago, you said: "There's a lot of hype about Twitter. Personally I don't find it that useful. It's something that's probably going away." It's a pretty powerful tool. Care to make any other predictions about technology and how much time do you spend online these days? I'm still waiting for your promised blog.

Cardwell: I spend a lot of time online. I'm finding, contrary to what I said, Twitter is becoming, for me the quickest medium for picking up short news stories and then I can follow up because there's usually a link. It's good for sending out news stories or referring to someone else's news story that I think is useful for people who might follow me...So I eat my words on that_I used to have a blog, probably ahead of most metro superintendents. I discontinued it. I find blogs to be not as useful, but I'm moving ahead of blogs-I'll probably be the first superintendent to launch a vlog, a video blog.

noconnor@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Naoibh

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