The gymnasium at Gladstone Secondary School erupted in cheers as the Vancouver School Board voted Thursday night not to adopt the proposed operating budget for the 2016/17 school year. The controversial budget included numerous cuts to educational services in order to address an anticipated $24-million shortfall, including eliminating the district’s anti‐racism and anti‐homophobia teacher mentors, dedicated instructors for the elementary band and strings program and support workers for gifted students and those with special needs. The budget also called for removing the 30-student limit on class sizes in Vancouver secondary schools and reducing the number of teachers by the equivalent of 33 full-time positions.
The motion to adopt the budget was defeated 5-4, with Green Party trustee Janet Fraser and Vision Vancouver trustees Joy Alexander, Patti Bacchus, Mike Lombardi and Allan Wong voting against. Non-Partisan Association trustees Fraser Ballantyne, Penny Noble,Christopher Richardson andStacy Robertson supported the motion.
Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association president Rory Brown said he’s thrilled with the board’s decision, which he says puts the responsibility for chronically underfunded public education back where it belongs at the feet of Christy Clark and B.C.’s Liberal government.
“I think it’s important to remember that B.C. has the biggest amount of child poverty of any province in the country [and] we’re almost the worst province for funding of education in the whole country,” Brown said. “These trustees have taken an oath to preserve the quality of education for children in Vancouver, and as far as their work goes, they’ve done that tonight.”
Carrie Bercic of Friends of the School Library said she was happily surprised by the board’s decision and had prepared herself for a 5-4 vote the other way. She said the level of public interest in this budget is what made trustees take a stand.
“From the time that I’ve spent as a public education advocate and a parent in the system, that’s the number one thing that I see is different this time, is people standing up and saying we’ve had enough,” Bercic said. “It’s a new thing for sure.”
The crowd leapt to their feet, clapping and shouting their approval as Fraser, who held the deciding vote in the occasion of an even split between the Vision and NPA trustees, announced her intention to vote against the budget.
Fraser said she agonized over the decision and hadn’t made up her mind until that evening as it was always possible that someone could say something that would sway her to one side or the other. In the end, however, it was the unanimous call at Monday’s public budget consultation for the board to take a stand and reject the budget that persuaded her to vote against it.
“I ran to be a trustee and I was elected to make decisions in our district and it’s very difficult to step back from that,” Fraser said. “I feel like we’re handing our students to a provincial government that I profoundly disagree with many of their education decisions and I really feel that that is not in the best interest of our students. Yet, in the big picture, it’s the right thing.”
Under the province’s School Act, all districts must submit a balanced budget by June 30, however due to clauses in VSB contracts requiring one month’s notice for layoffs, the district’s budget is typically set by the end of April. If Vancouver or any other district in the province fails to submit a balanced budget, the province has the power to fire elected trustees and appoint someone else in their place.
Fraser said she expects the province to fire the board but hopes to stay on until the end of June so trustees can finish work on the district’s long-range plans. Regardless, she said she’ll be mulling over her decision for some time yet.
“Have I made the right decision? I’m going to be thinking about that for probably two-and-a-half years,” Fraser said. “That’s the anticipation of how long we’ll have an appointed trustee for, and that’s how long I’ll be watching what’s happening.”
VSB chairperson Lombardi, who announced a month ago his intention to vote against the budget, said he would be calling Minister of Education Mike Bernier Thursday night to inform him of the board’s decision. Lombardi differed questions about the possibility of the boards dismissal following their decision to the minister, but said he looks forward to the minister’s response.
“I want to have a vibrant, dynamic conversation with the minister about how we make our public schools even better than they are,” Lombardi said. “The minister is interested in having a great public education system. He is the minister of education, he is the chief advocate for education, so I’m assuming he’s interested in working with us, with our parents and with our students to make our system even better. And we’ve got some great ideas to do that.”
Lombardi called on all involved to put aside their differences and work together to find a solution to the district’s financial troubles.
“It’s time for us to put our energy together to develop an exciting vision for education in Vancouver and to develop a plan to make things happen so that we can retain our status as a world-class education system,” Lombardi said. “I’m convinced parents are ready for that, students are ready for that, our city is ready for that and our trustees are ready to lead that conversation.”
In statement released to the media following the board’s decision, Bernier said he was disappointed by the board’s failure to pass a balanced budget, adding they still have until June 30 “to make a decision in the best interest of students.”
“Right now there is $37 million a year in Vancouver that should be going to essential classroom services that past boards have instead chosen to invest in heating and maintaining empty spaces in classrooms,” Bernier said. “Today’s failure continues this sad trend in Vancouver.”
“We are providing record funding to public education in Vancouver ‑- it’s 20.5 per cent higher than it was in 2001 — even though there are more than 6,000 fewer students,” Bernier said. “That funding should be going to essential student services not empty seats.”
The NPA released a statement after Thursday’s vote expressing its trustees’ disappointment with the result. In it, trustee Robertson echoed the minister’s comments placing blame for the district’s financial woes at the feet of the previous Vision-dominated school boards.
“Instead of looking at facility needs, the Vision trustees prioritized paying for empty space over paying for teachers and support staff, and now it’s our students who are going to suffer as a result,” Robertson said. “While other school boards around the Lower Mainland have made the tough decisions and acted responsibly in the best interests of students, Vision chose to blame others and refused to take responsible action, leaving the Vancouver School Board in the difficult position it is in now.”