Geoff Johnson: Investigate Vancouver school board


It is often said of government that when it does not know what to do, it does what it knows.

Almost traditionally now, when a board of school trustees gets uppity with government, the minister fires them and appoints an “official trustee.” In the case of the Vancouver school board, that, by all accounts, would not begin to address the problem.

The situation in which the Vancouver School District finds itself is without precedent. Superintendent Scott Robinson and secretary-treasurer Russell Horswill suddenly went on medical leave last week, and since then other senior staff have also left on medical leave.

Nothing like that has occurred in the history of public education in B.C.

In 1972, the newly elected NDP government decided to hand over its representatives in school districts, the superintendents, to the whims of locally elected boards. Since then, the relationship between the chief executive officers and the governing boards has slowly deteriorated.

Men and women who become superintendents of schools have passed a rigorous series of career positions as teachers, principals, directors and assistant superintendents.

They hand over their applications and resumés, are interviewed by more than one panel of community (and sometimes employee) representatives and only then are offered a contract.

Trustees, who run for election from a variety of motivations, have erected signs at election time, sometimes say a few words at public meetings and are elected. They subsequently become the bosses of the men and women who have devoted their careers to the benefit of public education.

The board of education, the school trustees elected by communities in the Vancouver area to oversee and, we hope, advance the prospects of public education, have instead devoted themselves to both small “p” and large “P” politics, needling each other, their administrators and the elected government of the province at every opportunity.

That’s the system and mostly it works, but not always. But instead of guessing about what really happened behind closed doors and which resulted in the mass exodus of the district’s senior staff, let’s consider what we do know.

The Vancouver situation, as far as can be determined by reports, finally came to grief over the proposal to close several schools, almost all of which are in Vancouver’s East End. Only one school was in the tony Point Grey area.

The proposal to close schools came as a result of the government’s inexplicable demand that existing schools be filled to 95 per cent capacity before it would consider seismic upgrading.

The reluctance of some trustees to close schools might have been part of a concern about where the board would find space for new schools in the future should the student population expand as demographers say it inevitably will.

We don’t know it is true that the split on the board resulted in a working atmosphere so toxic that those charged with the responsibility of actually running the system were sidelined, we don’t know, but we can wonder.

This complex school district has 54,000 students in 92 elementary schools, one middle school, 18 secondary schools, 16 elementary annexes and three adult-education centres, and an operating budget of more than $500 million. Did it really require a superintendent and six associate superintendents to keep track of all this? We don’t know — it would take a major research project to find out.

Regardless, for political rather than operational reasons, the number of associate superintendents running the Vancouver system was reduced four from six.

Whether that meant some responsibilities were downloaded to the survivors or whether some things were just set aside we don’t know, but common sense suggests that something had to give.

What we do know is that it is not uncommon for senior school district administrators to arrive at the office at 8 a.m. and leave, after a lengthy board meeting, at midnight. We know that their contracts, unlike the contracts of unionized employees, do not stipulate working hours or conditions.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the chaos now erupting at the VSB has been referred to WorkSafe B.C.

Here’s what else we know and without a doubt. It is time that the minister of education conducted a thorough review of the Vancouver system — not a budgetary audit, but a full operational review that includes everything from the organizational distribution of administrative responsibilities up to trustee behaviour and decision-making capacity.

Too many unknowns here, too many questions and it is time the board was required to come up with some answers.


Geoff Johnson is a retired

superintendent of schools.

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