Steer clear of Saanich software, education minister told trustees

Education Minister Peter Fassbender appears to have been working behind the scenes to discredit a computer system developed by the Saanich school district to track student grades, attendance and other records, documents show.

Despite stating publicly that districts were free to adopt a system of their choice, Fassbender sent a letter to directors of the B.C. School Trustees’ Association in February, advising them to steer clear of Saanich’s openStudent software.

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In the letter, Fassbender accuses Saanich of trying to “undermine” the ministry’s own student information system, MyEducation B.C., by enticing districts to select openStudent. He then portrays openStudent as costly and incompatible.

“We believe that we have selected the best product to support the transformation of education in this province and I am very concerned there is misinformation being actively communicated through a variety of channels,” he states in the letter, which was obtained by the Times Colonist under B.C.’s freedom of information law.

“I look to each of you as trustee leaders in this province to actively support the provincewide solution.”

Saanich trustees learned of the letter this week from the Times Colonist and were taken aback by its contents, said board chairman Wayne Hunter.

“The disturbing part about it is that he says that we’re trying to undermine the implementation of MyEducation B.C.,” Hunter said. “And we had been permitted to be a competitor. Basically, all the letters we got from them said that … we could compete for service.”

Hunter said the letter is another example of the ministry telling Saanich one thing and doing another. He noted the board was forced to scrap the $1.5-million openStudent project in March after the ministry said the system would have to integrate with the new B.C. Services Card. The board later obtained documents showing that the ministry’s own MyEducation B.C. system had been given a five-year exemption from the same requirement.

“We feel harmed as a board and we don’t necessarily think we should just duck and cover,” Hunter said. “That’s not fair and I don’t think that’s morally correct.”

Hunter also expressed frustration with the B.C. School Trustees’ Association for failing to alert Saanich trustees about Fassbender’s letter.

“I mean, whose side are they on?” he said. “And what else might they be hearing that none of us are aware of?”

The ministry issued a statement Friday denying that it misled Saanich or tried to undercut the openStudent project.

“The letter to the BCSTA executive was drafted because a number of districts had contacted ministry staff regarding high-pressured sales pitches they received to withdraw from their commitment to MyEducation B.C.,” the ministry said.

Fassbender intended to send the letter to all trustees, but scrapped that idea after meeting with the association’s executive, the ministry said.

School trustees’ association president Teresa Rezansoff said Friday that the executive advised Fassbender to have a face-to-face conversation with the Saanich board.

“It was a completely local matter and our advice was that that’s how he needed to deal with it,” she said. “In our minds, the action that we took was being respectful of the [Saanich] board and respectful of the ministry.”

Saanich began working on openStudent in 2011 with the goal of using local expertise to create a made-in-B.C. student information system. By using freely available open-source tools, officials believed they could develop the system for less than $5 million, with yearly maintenance pegged at less than $1 million.

The B.C. government, meanwhile, signed a 12-year deal with Fujitsu last fall to deliver MyEducation B.C. at a cost of up to $9.4 million a year.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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