Bringing hammer down on Vancouver School Board was clearly orchestrated

Firing the Vancouver school trustees earlier today was clearly an orchestrated move by the province’s Education Minister Mike Bernier. He argued the board is in violation of the law for failing to pass a balanced budget. But that has been the case since the end of June.

So, why now? Bernier was informed on Friday by board chair and Vision trustee Mike Lombardi that the board had agreed to reconsider that decision and planned to pass the budget Monday night. That, according to NPA trustee Penny Noble is what “forced [Bernier’s] hand.”

By the way, failure to pass the budget was simply a symbolic act to protest provincial under-funding of education. In fact, the staff is operating as if the budget will be balanced. Layoff notices have been sent out and programs to be cut have been decided.

And the ongoing conflict with the province should come as no surprise. That advocacy position has put most Vision school trustees at the top of the polls in the last three elections.

But to set the scene: At 6 a.m. Monday morning, the NPA school trustees put out a press release calling “on the minister of education to end the dysfunction at the VSB.” Fire us all.

Later that morning and eight hours before the decision to pass the budget would have been made, Bernier dropped the hammer. Lombardi got the call just before 11 a.m.

The minister’s press release soon followed.

Bernier alluded to a number of “concerns” he had “about stability in Vancouver schools for students.” He cited the Sept. 28 letter from the Chair of the B.C. School Superintendents Sherry Elwood alleging bullying and harassment of senior staff causing a number of them to take medical leave. None of these allegations have been proven; no one has come forward as a complainant; no trustee has offered any evidence of such behaviour by any of their colleagues. And, as of last report, WorkSafe B.C. entrusted with the investigation has yet to interview anyone.

But seemingly moments after the letter was received by the ministry, it was leaked to the media. What was clear from the letter was this: None of the contents were news to the government, Elwood and others had been bending the ear of Deputy Education Minister David Byng for some time about how “some of our members have been physically ill.”  As Elwood wrote: “Thanks for taking the time to hear the concerns.” The letter and its leak could be viewed as part of a battle plan to destabilize the board.

Over that time, as my colleague Mike Howell reported, six senior staff (the whole top executive including superintendent Scott Robinson) went on “medical leave.” Meanwhile nobody from the ministry said anything to the school trustees let alone the chair of the board. And the chair clearly failed to have the trust of Robinson on the matter.

Shortly after the harassment and bullying letter was leaked, Bernier decided to hand the investigation off to WorkSafe B.C.

Meanwhile within a couple of days following the curiously coincidental bailouts by senior managers, the former superintendent Steve Cardwell (who took leave from his current post at UBC) and the former secretary treasurer Rick Krowchuk (who was retired) agreed to come back to keep operations going. That is hardly what you would expect if the workplace was as “toxic” as was being alleged.

One of Cardwell’s first acts was to deal with another Bernier bumble. The minster removed the requirement that all schools operate at 95 per cent capacity in order to get funding for seismic upgrading. So the board stopped plans to shut down a number of schools.

And just in case you forgot, Bernier already had a special advisor in the person of Peter Milburn poking around looking at the board’s “financial and governance practices.” Bernier got that report Saturday and while he said it “deepens my concerns,” he is sitting on it until a complaint to the privacy commissioner about confidential VSB communications being turned over to Milburn is dealt with.

And, oh yes, after years of confusion over funding and stalling, Bernier promises to “put Vancouver back on a firm financial footing” and he will be “accelerating seismic upgrades.”

It is all so much easier without disputatious elected school trustees in the way.