It’s trial by Twitter at the VSB

“I feel like I’m in court,” said acting superintendent Steve Cardwell during a grilling by school trustee Stacy Robertson at a recent meeting of the Vancouver Board of Education. A trial lawyer by day, Robertson was seeking answers from Cardwell on why the VSB needs census data to project school enrolment when — in his view — reliable data already exists.

If Robertson and his fellow NPA trustees appeared frustrated at last week’s VSB meeting, they had good reason. News of Cardwell’s recommendation to do an about face on 18 months of difficult work on facilities planning had blindsided them. No one had apparently shared the acting superintendent’s five recommendations with them before they were tabled at the public meeting.

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Cardwell, as well as retired secretary-treasurer Rick Krowchuk, were hastily appointed by the board before the weekend to fill in for the VSB management team that had taken sick leave amid allegations of bullying leveled by the B.C. School Superintendents Association. Both had been on the job approximately one day before the new direction for the VSB was put forward.

Lombardi and his Vision Vancouver colleague Patti Bacchus were effusive in their praise of Cardwell leaving his post at UBC to return to the school board. Cardwell was hired by the Vision-dominated board in 2010, and he eventually left in 2014 after administering during what I observe as the VSB’s most difficult and sometimes dysfunctional period.

Until the past two weeks, that is.

The acting superintendent took to Twitter after the meeting to share a Vancouver Sun editorial on the Board of Education’s troubles. Given the charged environment on social media, it was probably not the best platform for the VSB’s most senior employee.

Twitter has become a preferred venue for the heated debate about public education in our city — for Vision Vancouver especially.

True to form, Lombardi spent much of last Sunday morning tweeting out a radio interview he did with CKNW to persuade media contacts and other political observers.

In response to a critical Globe and Mail column, Bacchus shot back by tweeting links to blog posts written by her husband deriding award-winning columnist Gary Mason. She called Mason’s column a “classic drive by on the VSB.”

Even Mayor Gregor Robertson chimed in by tweeting, “Thanks to 5 bold trustees for supporting #Vancouver kids, who deserve exceptional public education!” He made no mention of the six senior staff allegedly bullied into stepping down, however.

With a provincial election coming, there is clearly no point in calling for a ceasefire at the VSB. Vision is evidently just gearing up for battle.

Unlike 59 other districts in B.C., Vancouver’s board of education seems incapable of working with the provincial government, or managing within its budget. What makes it the exception?

Vancouver is no longer the largest school district in B.C., nor is it the only one dealing with large numbers of children speaking English as a second language.

Vancouver is not alone when it comes to diversity with respect to household income. It is not the only district with a breakfast program and students living in poverty.

Nor is it the only district that must address the needs of indigenous families or children with special learning needs.

It is, however, the only district in the province that consistently and persistently fails to deal with declining enrolment — and the need to address the enrolment decline by making choices about use of facilities.

In fact, the only schools this board has closed or may have to decide to close are those for which there are no students registered.

Perhaps most concerning is the lack of respect on display for the absent senior management team.

In a recent tweet, Bacchus seemed to suggest that the superintendent and his staff had taken sick leave because the crisis was “clearly orchestrated by [the provincial] government… not hard to connect the dots on this.”

Senior managers at the school board are highly educated, independent-thinking professionals with the knowledge and experience the district desperately needs.

If they feel like they are on trial, it is because they are frustrated by a board that is more interested in politics than governing.

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