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BC’s Education Minister Fires Vancouver School Board

School Bus

Christopher Gallardo-Ganaban (1L)

On October 17, 2016, British Columbia’s Education Minister Mike Bernier appointed former Delta, B.C. school district superintendent, Dianne Turner, as the official trustee for the Vancouver school district, replacing the board of nine trustees known as the Vancouver School Board.

“The Vancouver school board has been dismissed for failing to comply with the “School Act” which required the board to adopt a balanced budget by June 30, 2016,” said Bernier in an official statement. In addition to their non-compliance, Bernier mentioned other concerns about stability in Vancouver schools for students, including allegations regarding a toxic workplace, and bullying amongst trustees and staff.

As outlined in the British Columbia “School Act”, each school district has a board of education, consisting of three, five, seven, or nine trustees. For the Vancouver school district, trustees must be elected from the school district at large; the nine trustees who were fired were elected in 2014.

The duties of a board of education include: formulating and interpreting policies and bylaws; delegating administrative duties; making decisions on matters that are educational and regarding budgets; educational, administrative, and planning processes; administering public funds; and communicating with citizens of the district. When a board of education fails to meet their duties, an official trustee appointed under the School Act may assume these duties.

Earlier this year, Vancouver was the only school district out of 60 in B.C. to fail to submit a balanced budget by the deadline in June; this prompted Bernier to hire special advisor Peter Milburn to develop a forensic audit of the board, including their expenditures, operations, and strategies.

Along with their failure to pass a balanced budget, the Vancouver School Board also experienced controversy in their recent initiatives, including listing 12 schools for potential closures to deal with a budget shortfall while refusing to sell Kingsgate Mall lands in East Vancouver, which is owned by the Vancouver School Board, which would have decreased their deficit in their budget.

After receiving the results of the audit, Bernier fired the trustees, withholding the release of the report due to a privacy investigation in progress by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. After the privacy investigation was completed, Bernier released the report, which provided recommendations for the issues faced by the Vancouver School Board.

Among Milburn’s recommendations, he proposed the closing of schools that had inadequate attendance to reduce facility expenses, renegotiation of collective agreements with union staff to reduce labour costs, reduction of the amount of employees, and implementation of real estate initiatives. Overall, the report identified the financial and operational inefficiencies of the Vancouver School Board while providing recommendations to recover from their deficit.

The political make-up of the board may have contributed to the Vancouver School Board’s inefficiencies. Each trustee is a member of his or her own municipal political party. As such, disagreements when deliberating are inevitable. In the past, the Vancouver School Board consisted of a majority of members from local party Vision Vancouver. However, the recently fired Vancouver School Board consisted of four trustees from Vision Vancouver, four trustees from the Non-Partisan Association, and one trustee from the Green Party of Vancouver. Individual trustees may not make decisions for the entire board, so the board’s political make-up could cause delays in the decision-making process.

While this politically influenced structure can create difficulties in making important decisions in a timely manner, it is important to note its inherent democratic value. This structure allows each trustee to effectively represent those who elected him or her. Appointing Turner as the sole official trustee could jeopardize the democratic nature of a board of education. Having one official trustee eliminates the discourse that exists with multiple trustees, and eliminating the representation provided by an elected body.

Despite the democratic implications, Education Minister Bernier believed that Turner’s skills and qualifications would ameliorate issues that resulted from the decisions of the recently fired Vancouver School Board. Bernier stated in an open letter to Vancouver parents, “Dianne Turner is one of the most respected educators in our province. She’s been a teacher, a vice-principal, and principal in the Vancouver school district. She’s been an education leader in her time as assistant-superintendent and superintendent at the Delta school district. Born and raised in Vancouver – she’s ready to chart a path forward for our schools and our school system.”

Turner acknowledged the obstacles she faces to gain the trust of the public given her situation. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Turner stated, “it’s going to take a while to build trust. I think people think I am an arm of the government because I have been appointed by government. I think it’s fair to say that I’m also able to make my own mind up about a lot of things.”

Turner was appointed for a one-year term. Given her ability to make decisions without consulting with additional trustees to fulfil her responsibilities, she holds more power than the former Vancouver School Board to address financial inefficiencies in the district. While this may put the Vancouver school district in a better position for change, there is still much work to be done to ensure that the budgetary deficits that resulted in the firing of the Vancouver School Board are addressed.