Les Leyne: Vancouver School Board dismissal a calculated risk


VKA-Leyne02832.jpgThe B.C. Liberals’ obvious goal for the past several months has been to dampen down unrest and smooth over any problems en route to the May election.

People are upset about home prices? The government launches a multi-pronged attack on the problem on short notice.

Victoria’s tent city becomes a problem? They drop millions to create alternatives to shut it down.

The Cariboo-Chilcotin remains upset about the stopgap ferry service represented by the MV Nimpkish? A new ship is announced.

School-funding complaints? The government sprinkles a series of grants around B.C. to placate people.

So Education Minister Mike Bernier’s dramatic dismissal of the Vancouver School Board on Monday is well outside the playbook they’ve been following. He’s turned a long-running argument into full-fledged crisis around which any number of people opposed to the B.C. Liberals can rally.

The conclusion is that the Liberal cabinet thinks it can face down the outrage between now and voting day and win the fight. They’re betting it will dissipate in time, or like the weekend windstorm, it won’t blow as hard as expected. It’s a big gamble, but the further you get away from Vancouver, the better the Liberals like their odds.

As Bernier noted, 59 out of B.C.’s 60 school boards have passed balanced budgets. Vancouver’s failure to do so was the primary firing offence he cited. The contrast was meant to point out that Vancouver, as usual, is the outlier. The board has perennial difficulties balancing budgets that go back years, no matter what the makeup of the board.

But the contrast also imposes some pressure on Bernier, because they’re all watching to see what happens to Vancouver. It has been operating outside the law for 109 days now, since the July 1 budget deadline. Several other boards are wondering: “If they can get away with it, why can’t we?”

VSB was set to grudgingly capitulate and finally vote on a balanced budget Monday night, forced into it by a deadline for seismic funding. But the months of drama, combined with the potentially explosive bullying allegations by senior staff, likely prompted Bernier to dispatch the board before it had a chance. He told reporters it was impossible to have any confidence that the vote would have signalled a change in attitude.

The second justification for the move was special adviser Peter Milburn’s report on board governance. The former deputy finance minister filed it to the minister, who read it on Saturday and concluded: “It only deepens my concerns.”

It can’t be released until a privacy issue raised by fired board member Patti Bacchus is resolved.

But it’s likely another chapter in a story that has been told before. An accounting firm last year reviewed the books and found millions of dollars in savings there for the taking. Six years ago, the Finance Ministry’s comptroller general audited the board during a similar crisis. She found the board had made less than optimal choices, missed chances to cut costs and make money, and “does not take a balanced approach to its accountabilities, focusing on advocacy at the expense of stewardship.”

Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland also hinted at something in 2010 that burst fully in view last month. She found consistent concerns about the board’s ethical and organizational outlook. “These concerns focused on the lack of impartiality of a number of trustees and a lack of trust, confidence and respect between the VSB trustees and the district management team.”

At the first of this month, several senior staff abruptly took medical leaves after the board reversed course on school closures. It’s effectively a wildcat management strike and it appears to confirm the warning from six years ago.

There’s a view from afar that Vancouver considers itself too special to play by the rules everyone else observes. That’s going to dampen some of the outrage.

But in Vancouver, it will be crisis time. “Frightening … a sad day for democracy,” said the official opposition. Ex-trustees hope their martyrdom becomes an election issue.

The political chaos will last for a while yet. A full report on the “bullying” and toxic work environment claimed by management will set the tone for how the rest of this fight plays out.


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