Here’s why 2019 could be a bumpy year for education in Vancouver

While this year had its highs and lows, by the time 2019 is over, 2018 could look like halcyon days.

In 2018, there was a teacher shortage, a new superintendent for the Vancouver School Board and a civic election that resulted in a politically split board. But 2019 holds much more — for VSB there will be controversial decisions about school space, school boundaries and what could be interesting talks about building workforce housing on school property.

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Provincially, even more is at stake. New graduation requirements kick in, the funding formula is being revised and teachers are entering contract negotiations for the first time since winning their huge court case in 2016.

Earlier this year, there was an extreme teacher shortage in the province, where hundreds of teacher absences went uncovered. Children with special needs lost their specialist teachers when those teachers were pulled in to cover for teachers who were sick.

In October, an arbitrator ruled in favour of a B.C. Teachers’ Federation grievance on the matter, saying school districts should not use any teacher other than a teacher on call to cover for a teacher who is absent, except in an emergency. Still, there are 400 teacher job vacancies in the province, before counting teacher on call openings, so staffing continues to be a balancing act for school districts.

Suzanne Hoffman took over as VSB’s first female superintendent of schools last January, saying she hoped to make Vancouver into a “magnet district” that draws in people who “could just die to be a teacher here.” So far, she’s run the district with few hiccups. Now that she has a new board with a four-year mandate, it will be interesting to see what can be accomplished.

October’s civic election saw voters return a politically split board with three Green trustees, three NPA trustees, and one each for Vision, COPE and OneCity. The Green Party’s Janet Fraser returned as chairperson, after topping the polls for the second straight vote. As the board faces critical decisions in 2019, how trustees choose to align will be something to watch.

In 2018, the VSB made an attempt to review school boundaries, but parents rebelled because siblings might be split up. Staff are taking a second look and a new process is expected soon. It’s sure to be contentious because school boundaries are entangled with school space, which of course brings up the always-fraught idea of school closures.

Largely due to its crazy sky-high real estate market, Vancouver finds itself as an unbalanced city. Older, single-family home neighbourhoods on the city’s East Side have a lot of excess space in their schools, while schools downtown, in False Creek and Kitsilano and on the Cambie corridor are overflowing. There are 8,600 surplus seats in the district, the equivalent of about 24 elementary schools or six or seven high schools.

Parents at Edith Cavell elementary, which is at high risk in an earthquake, were happy to get funding for their school to be improved, but upset that the 98-year-old school wouldn’t be expanded or rebuilt during construction. Not only that, but the VSB planned to bus them across town, from about 20th and Cambie Street to near 49th and Boundary Road.

While that bussing plan has been revisited, the VSB managed to provoke parents at Maple Grove elementary and Magee secondary with plans to send Cavell students there during construction, even though Maple Grove is already undergoing construction itself.

The board faces many more confrontations and tough decisions like this in 2019 — it’s planning to update its long-range facilities plan, a process that saw the entire board fired in 2016, supposedly for failing to pass a balanced budget, but more likely due to the stress of trying to close 12 schools.

The plan could also contain a notable opportunity for social change in a city struggling with high housing costs, significant poverty and an unrelenting opioid crisis. The VSB has promised to look into the potential for leveraging some of its massive land holdings into providing workforce or other housing, a project that could change the face of the city. A provincial poverty reduction plan is expected in the new year — perhaps some synchronicity between the two could be found.

On the provincial stage, there are new graduation requirements, which include three new exams, one in math and two in English, to be reported on students’ transcripts. These will replace course-based provincial exams. There are also several new courses, including many about Indigenous culture and languages, but it won’t be mandatory for students to take an Indigenous studies course.

This marks the completion of an upgrade to the entire kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. For the most part, parents and teachers have been positive about the changes, although teachers have said there are not enough up-to-date resources and there hasn’t been enough training to adequately teach the new curriculum.

In January, negotiations are expected to begin in the teachers’ contract, which expires in June 2019. These are high stakes negotiations, with expectations for meaningful wage increases due to the teachers’ shortage, coupled with inequities across the province for class size and composition.  

Mid-way into these negotiations, the BCTF will have a new president — Glen Hansman’s three-year term ends in March. First vice-president Teri Mooring has been on the executive several years and appears likely step into the role.

Parents still remember the last time teachers and the province sat down to negotiate a contract — schools were closed for five weeks spanning two school years. The players have all changed, with new BCTF leadership and John Horgan’s NDP government instead of Christy Clark’s Liberals, but the basic issues remain the same.

While Education Minister Rob Fleming recently pulled back on imminent changes to the way services for special needs students are funded, allowing for consultation, the proposed changes could still add tension to upcoming teacher contract negotiations, which are already highly charged.

Let’s hope for the best in 2019, a year when education news could be riveting.

Tracy Sherlock writes about education and social issues. She can be reached at 

tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.

 

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