Vancouver School Board trustees risk their necks in fight for public education

Sir Guy Carleton Elementary is one of the twelve schools that could be closed. | Photo by Richard Eriksson

Sir Guy Carleton Elementary is one of the twelve schools that could be closed. | Photo by Richard Eriksson

The end of the school year is supposed to be a time of celebration and relaxation for students, families, and educators. It’s time to unplug and go play outside or hit the beach, at least for a few weeks. This year, however, these rites of summer for Vancouver parents, kids, and teachers will be disrupted by anxiety about their future.

The Vancouver School Board, feeling the squeeze of systemic underfunding from the provincial government, has announced a list of 12 schools in the city that are on the list for potential closure.

The rationale is low enrollment and the need to carry out long overdue seismic upgrades on a number of schools. But the definition of low enrollment is set extremely high: 95 per cent. This seemingly completely arbitrary number imposed by the provincial government is what’s forcing the VSB to consider so many schools for potential closure. Vancouver trustee Patti Bacchus described the 95 per cent figure as an “ultimatum” from the B.C. government.

As soon as this conflict between the VSB and the province came to a head, the usual mainstream media voices piped up – to blame the local school board. Global TV’s Keith Baldrey, a competent reporter and somewhat zealous defender of the status quo, tweeted, “A number of school trustees over the years have expressed to me their disdain of the VSB for not making tough decisions.”

This is symptomatic of right-wing commentators’ disdain for public education. What would be the point of having elected local school boards if all they did was roll over and figure out how to meekly implement B.C. government dictates? Parents, teachers and indeed students in Vancouver appreciate our school board’s fighting spirit.

Bacchus, a former school board chair and fierce critic of the B.C. Liberals’ handling of public education, defends the VSB’s adversarial approach: “School trustees are elected to make good local decisions to increase student achievement – not to help government dismantle a great system.”

How far are Vancouver’s school trustees prepared to take this fight? According to reports, a majority of board members are willing to risk their own jobs. This week is the deadline for the VSB to approve and return a balanced budget to the provincial government. They say they won’t do it, since it will mean more closures and cutbacks. That would put the B.C. government in a position where they could fire the board. The last time that happened in Vancouver was the mid 1980s.

Zooming out from Vancouver, the question for B.C. as a whole is why on earth would a province this wealthy neglect, or indeed dismantle piecemeal, its public education system? As they say, a fish rots from the head.

Premier Christy Clark’s son attends one of B.C.’s most expensive, posh private schools. The children of this province’s elite and a big chunk of the decision-makers go to private school. So part of the problem is just that too many of the people in charge are disconnected from the families they claim to be representing. Their kids enjoy the benefits of small class size and super-resourced libraries and labs.

Incredibly, these privileges of the elite are subsidized by the public, with tax dollars contributing to subsidizing private school education. Sandy Garossino of the National Observer recently reported one scandalous aspect of this public-private partnership in education. In an appropriately scathing exposé, Garossino described the twenty-thousand-a-year-plus Saint George’s private school on Vancouver’s westside as “a taxpayer-subsidized babysitting service for boys.”

“When your kids are on recess break in the public school system, you hope they don’t break anything falling off the monkey bars. When they’re at Saints, you lean back and think, ‘Isn’t this beautiful,’ while your tax gains roll in.”

“That’s because to Revenue Canada, lunch, recess and after-school activities at elite private schools aren’t education, they’re day-care. The CRA grants over $3600 in annual child-care deductions against the tuition cost of every student at St. George’s, until the age of 16.”

This is simply grotesque. Public funds should be exclusively for public schools, and the whole education system needs a massive boost in funding. Rather than being allowed to exploit loopholes to pay less taxes, the rich must be made to pay for a quality system that benefits all children and families in B.C. Our province, and our city, deserves better. Gratitude and respect to all the trustees of the Vancouver School Board who are willing to put their necks on the line for public education.

Sir Guy Carleton Elementary is one of the twelve schools that could be closed.