Someone much more prescient than yours truly once said it’s helpful to examine the past in order to understand the present.
So let’s do that.
Let’s look back to the year 2010 to get a sense of what the heck is going on at the Vancouver school board in 2016.
First some background: You may have heard that relations between school trustees and senior staff aren’t so great. That’s according to allegations that surfaced last Friday courtesy of the B.C. School Superintendents Association.
In a letter to the Ministry of Education, the association made serious allegations of “a toxic work environment” between trustees and school board staff. The ministry confirmed the association’s concerns and said it forwarded the letter to WorkSafeBC “because of their jurisdiction regarding bullying and harassment in the workplace.”
The letter was sent within days of Vancouver school superintendent Scott Robinson and secretary-treasurer Russell Horswill both taking medical leave. I also know associate superintendents Nancy Brennan, Julie Pearce and Murray Doucette took medical leave. So did David Nelson, the project lead for long-range facilities planning.
That’s the district’s entire senior management team.
All of them went on leave within the last week.
That question doesn’t have an easy answer, or at least one anyone will give me.
Could it have something to do with possible school closures? Or how about the annual political jousting with the provincial government? Was the staff fed up with the politically-charged board?
The association’s letter nor the statements from the ministry and WorkSafeBC named Robinson or Horswill, or any other employee from the school board. So the public is left to speculate or assume the timing of the association’s letter was purely coincidental to Robinson, Horswill and others taking leave.
Draw your own conclusions here.
I tried to talk to the association’s president, Sherry Elwood, about what prompted the letter but she declined my invitation. WorkSafeBC would only tell me they’re on the case but would not further discuss the investigation.
Trustees, however, are talking.
But they aren’t saying much, unless you count the NPA pointing fingers at Vision Vancouver for delaying a decision on potential school closures in Vancouver – or Vision pointing fingers at the provincial government for forcing the board to cut millions from the district.
The NPA’s Fraser Ballantyne: “It’s pretty ugly, actually. I don’t know where to start. It’s a big circus. I went for a walk through the school board on Friday and talked to a lot of people. And on a scale of one to 10 for morale, I would say it’s probably a negative five. ”
Vision Vancouver’s Mike Lombardi: “Our system has been under significant stress for a dozen years now. We’ve got a world-class education system in Vancouver but it’s at risk because of its chronic underfunding.”
The Green Party’s Janet Fraser: “I have a professional and respectful relationship with staff and trustees. It’s not been brought to my attention that staff are unhappy with my behaviour as a trustee.”
There’s more from trustees, but their insight pales in comparison to an informative Ministry of Finance report authored by Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland, the comptroller general, in 2010. Some of you may recall the Ministry of Education requested a deep dive back then into the board’s budget development process. Here’s what Wenezenki-Yolland concluded:
“The Vancouver school board had many policies and procedures to promote good conduct and high ethical standards. Notwithstanding these policies and procedures, consistent concerns about the ethical and organizational culture at the Vancouver school board were strongly evident from our review. These concerns focused on the lack of impartiality of a number of trustees and a lack of trust, confidence and respect between the Vancouver school board trustees and the district management team. Whether real or perceived, the board needs to take immediate steps to fully address these concerns regarding the trustees and ensure a respectful and effective working relationship is established between the trustees and the district management team.”
Apparently, that hasn’t happened.
She also wrote that “the board of trustees does not take a balanced approach to its accountabilities, focusing on advocacy at the expense of stewardship. The majority of the Vancouver school board trustees see their role relative to the Ministry of Education as one primarily related to advocacy, rather than as ‘co-governors’ of the education system. The effect of this extensive advocacy activity deflects the accountability of the trustees from the overall financial stewardship of the Vancouver school board.”
Wenezenki-Yolland wrote her report in 2010 when the mix of the nine-member board comprised four Vision Vancouver trustees, three from COPE and two from the NPA. Those remaining on the current board are Vision’s Lombardi, Patti Bacchus and Allan Wong, who left COPE for Vision before the 2011 election. Vision added Joy Alexander to its team after the 2011 vote.
The NPA’s four trustees – Fraser Ballantyne, Stacy Robertson, Penny Noble and Christopher Richardson -- were not on the board in 2010. Neither was Fraser, the board’s lone Green Party trustee. The present board was to meet Monday night to further discuss what transpired in what was a remarkable and unprecedented week in the district.
I’m sure politics had nothing to do with it.
And I'm sure parents, teachers and students are not at all fed up.