2017 saw much instability and a few bright spots for Vancouver school district

Bullying, byelections and budgets made for volatile year

2017 wasn’t a great year for the Vancouver School Board, given the instability among senior leaders, the inability of the district to hire enough teachers to fulfil the reinstated contract and the inanity of the reports finding bullying by trustees of board staff.

But there were bright spots — the election of an NDP government brought with it promises of more funding, the byelection restored democratic accountability and the money provided by the teachers’ contract eliminated an expected $12-million shortfall.

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By September, the province increased education funding about $175 million a year to hire about 3,500 new teachers, all due to the teachers’ win at the Supreme Court of Canada.  

But that’s not the end of the story. Both the BCTF and parents have said children with special needs are being shortchanged because districts haven’t been able to hire enough teachers on call or specialty teachers.

BCTF president Glen Hansman said Vancouver is an extreme example of that. At one inner city school last week, the district didn’t replace seven staff who were off sick on the same day.

“That’s a lot of juggling, scrambling, disruption to programming for students with special needs and it’s really demoralizing for front line workers in schools,” Hansman said. “Here we are in December and Vancouver still hasn’t got it together.”

An FOI request provided by Hansman shows the number of unfilled teacher absences was 1,461 in 2014-15, 928 in 2015-16, and a whopping 4,819 in 2016-17.

“They saved a bundle of money and a bunch of kids went without their service,” Hansman said.

While the VSB is struggling to hire and retain teachers — perhaps in part due to the high cost of housing in the city — such an extreme change in the number of unfilled absences suggests to me an intentional decision on the part of the district.

The BCTF has filed a provincial grievance and an application with the Labour Relations Board about these gaps and is scheduling dates in January, Hansman said.

When absent teachers or support staff are not replaced, teachers who are supposed to work with students with special needs are used instead to fill in. That means the students with special needs lose out.

Last year, there were 17,309 classes with more than four students with special needs and 4,186 classes with more than seven students with special needs. Those numbers are expected to drop significantly this year, with the restored contract.

Some districts, including Vancouver, are accused of relying too heavily on so-called remedies, rather than setting up classes as the contracts require. The remedies provide teachers with extra prep time or other supports if their classroom breaks the rules of the contract.

Katharine Shipley, president of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers Association, said addressing the remedies requires teachers on call, which are in short supply.

Since the VSB trustees were fired in October 2016, an appointed official trustee, Dianne Turner, has been running the district, at a cost of about $167,000 a year. Her services have been retained for another year, even after elected trustees were returned to office this fall.

The board has also been without a permanent superintendent since last fall. Former Langley school superintendent Suzanne Hoffman has been hired, but doesn’t start until Jan. 8.

Shipley said the secondary teachers are “super excited” to start working with Hoffman and says she has heard great things about her from Langley teachers. Also, Shipley said it is “fantastic” having an elected board again.

The district also has a new treasurer, J. David Green.

The byelection this fall put the Green Party in a strong position on the VSB, with Janet Fraser topping the polls and her two party mates coming second and third. There are also three Vision trustees, two NPA trustees and one OneCity trustee. That board will be in place just one year, with a civic election to be held Oct. 20, 2018.

Although the board has a short mandate, a brand new senior management team and a major hiring challenge underway, it also has some big projects to complete, significant decisions to make and some fired up parents to deal with.

Filed under big projects are the upcoming program and boundary reviews, which will consider future strategies for specialty programs like French immersion or Montessori and alternate programs as well as the catchment areas for schools.

French immersion parents are upset that five French immersion kindergartens that were cut last year will not be reinstated next year. Expanding or even maintaining French immersion classes is an extreme challenge for school districts at the moment, because of a lack of qualified teachers as well as the reinstated contract.

New trustee Lisa Dominato introduced a motion for a governance review, to be completed very soon. Both Shipley and Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association president Chloe McKnight said they support the concept of a governance review, but they’re concerned that the public and other stakeholders might lose their voice in the district.

Trustees will debate renaming the new elementary school downtown from Crosstown to Cumyow, after an early Chinese settler. The province has announced a funding formula review, which could be good or bad news for districts.

VSB trustees will have to wrestle with tough decisions, as well as facing another potential budget shortfall this spring and the ongoing struggle to hire enough teachers to meet contract demands. The fun never stops at VSB and 2018 will be no different.

Tracy Sherlock writes about education and social issues. She can be reached at tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.

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