Minister investigates teen’s $16,000 research project

Education Minister Peter Fassbender says he is investigating how $16,000 in public funds were paid to a teenage researcher on the already well-researched topic of Finnish teacher education.

Stelly’s Secondary School graduate Anjali Vyas travelled to Finland in 2013 to conduct interviews about teacher education. She also conducted interviews at the University of Victoria and wrote a 14-page comparative report of her findings.

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Superintendent of achievement Rick Davis said Vyas offered a student perspective on teacher education, according to documents obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation through a freedom of information request.

Vyas received two contracts for her work after sharing her research plans with Davis — one in 2012 for $8,000 and another in 2013 for “up to $8,000.”

“I think this young lady, of course, was passionate about education, and I really celebrate her enthusiasm. But this isn’t really about her — it’s about our procedures,” Fassbender said Tuesday.

“I’ve spoken with the deputy and we’re reviewing our procedures on contracts like this.”

Fassbender said he is concerned about the contracts, but also called the process “open and transparent,” since all ministry contracts are posted monthly.

Sole-source contracts under a certain threshold can be awarded without contest, he said, but they are traditionally signed off on by the deputy minister.

“The current deputy was not the one who signed this particular contract, that’s why we’re reviewing it,” Fassbender said.

“If there are procedures we need to change, we will definitely look at that.”

James Gorman was deputy education minister from 2008 until October 2013, when Rob Wood replaced him.

Vyas released a video statement Thursday defending her work.

She said her study didn’t occur on a whim, but grew from years of deep interest and involvement in education development.

“It was the result of much hard work and sacrifice. Regarding the origin of this contract, I planned this project six months in advance of ever meeting with Rick Davis,” she said.

After sharing her plans, she said she was offered the opportunity to work with the ministry. The $16,000 covered a year’s worth of work, not just her travel to Finland, she said, and she also contributed a significant amount of her personal savings.

“This was not a vacation; I was working every single day to complete this project,” she said.

“It is hurtful to hear negative comments about my work. I am proud of what I have accomplished with the Ministry of Education and I believe it is important to involve youth, as they are the very people who make up the majority of the education system.”

Jordan Bateman, B.C. director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he’s pleased to see Fassbender taking the issue seriously.

“I understand it’s not a huge amount of money, in the scheme of a $5-billion per year budget, but at a time when the ministry and school districts are really stretching to get value out of every nickel, this particular project just doesn’t sit right,” Bateman said.

NDP education critic Rob Fleming echoed his reaction.

“What concerns me is that the minister of education is busy pointing fingers at school districts all around the province in the middle of cutting budgets for essential programs, when what he should be doing is shining a light on waste. This is a perfect example, right inside his own ministry,” Fleming said.

“They have to answer the question about whether it was needed at all.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

With a file from Lindsay Kines

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