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What’s the Role of a School Trustee: Advocate or Steward?

The question, some say, is at the heart of Vancouver School Board’s latest pains.

Katie Hyslop 1 Nov 2016TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

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Former Vision Vancouver trustee Patti Bacchus says she believes good stewardship as a school trustee requires being an advocate, too. Not everyone agrees.

If there’s one thing the education ministry, educators, parents and the now former-Vancouver school trustees can agree on, it’s this — something is broken at the Vancouver School Board.

Peter Milburn, former B.C. deputy finance minister and author of a ministry-mandated forensic audit of the board released on Friday, highlighted the board’s refusal to pass this year’s budget as its major failure. The board was fired Oct. 17.

The School Act requires boards to pass balanced budgets by June 30. The Vancouver board is the only one that has failed to approve a budget since 1995. (The North Vancouver and Cowichan boards passed deficit budgets in 1996 and 2012, respectively, which also got them fired.)

That failure resulted in Milburn’s appointment to conduct the third Vancouver School Board audit in six years.

But the failure, in Milburn’s eyes, rests on a fundamental disagreement over the role of school trustees: are they advocates or stewards?

“The primary role of school boards is to make the fundamental choices necessary to reflect the education priorities of the region within the funding envelope set by the provincial government,” Milburn’s report says. “Managing such budget constraints is the cornerstone of corporate stewardship.”

But it’s not that simple, stakeholders told The Tyee. Yes, trustees must heed the Education Ministry’s direction and budgets. Yet they’re elected by, and accountable to, citizens in their district.

In Vancouver they have been demanding more education funding, faster progress on seismic upgrading and no school closures.

And when the people and the government disagree, trustees’ loyalties can get them fired — either by government edict, or in the next election.

Advocacy vs. stewardship

Milburn noted the conflict between school trustees’ advocacy role on behalf of the people who elected them and their stewardship role in following the government’s mandates.

“Stewardship involves the appropriate oversight, planning, and management of the available resources to successfully achieve the entity’s strategic goals,” he wrote. “However, the more successfully the resources available are managed, the harder it is for advocates to demonstrate that more funding is required.”

Although Milburn doesn’t name party affiliations, anyone who follows the school board knows the sole Green Party trustee and Vision Vancouver trustees saw themselves as advocates for more education funding, while the Non-Partisan Association trustees saw themselves as stewards responsible for finding ways to operate under the strict budget set by the provincial government.

Former Vision Vancouver trustee Patti Bacchus, who served as board chair from 2008 until 2014 and remained on the board until she was fired last month, says good stewardship requires being an advocate.

“I see my job as a school trustee as ensuring that the schools and students have what they need to be successful, that it’s to support the people on the front lines teaching and supporting students,” she said. Trustees also need to take care of the district’s assets, like the land the Kingsgate Mall sits on, which earns the school board about $750,000 in rent each year.

Milburn and the B.C. government recommend the board sell the land to the province and use the proceeds to prevent $5.6 million in classroom-level cuts being implemented this year.

Former Non-Partisan Association trustee Christopher Richardson, board chair from December 2014 until June 2015, sees no problem with advocacy. But it has to happen in conjunction with stewardship and a better relationship with the education ministry, he said.

“I don’t think the School Act says you can’t be an advocate, but it suggests that you have to be a co-manager with the government,” he said.

Richardson acknowledges that can create conflict when the money allotted to the district isn’t enough to meet education costs. “The question is, if the deep pocket isn’t deep enough, how do you advocate or communicate? And that’s where I think we’ve fallen down.”

‘10 years of difficulties’

But while a board doesn’t have to agree publicly with the education minister, it does have to follow the law, which means passing a balanced budget.

BC School Trustees Association president Teresa Rezansoff says a trustee’s role can involve advocacy, but the main responsibility is stewardship based on provincial government direction.

“Government has the power to develop and put in place overarching policies relating to education in the province,” she said, “then as co-governor, it’s our obligation and role to live within those policies, and then to also formulate our local policies and procedures.”

Milburn’s audit recommends the Vancouver School Board, which is not a member of the trustees’ association, seek help from the BSCTA in being less partisan. Rezansoff says success also comes with getting along better with the education ministry.

The Non-Partisan Association agrees. When Richardson was board chair in 2015, he tried to foster a better relationship with then education minister Peter Fassbender and his staff.

For a while it worked, with the ministry agreeing to a pilot project with Simon Fraser University to study the impact of earlier special needs assessments and the district establishing its seismic upgrading office.

But it fell apart when Fassbender appointed Ernst and Young to audit the board in May 2015.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to change what was 10 years of difficulties with the provincial government,” said Richardson, who stepped down as chair the following month. “I was heartbroken that I wasn’t able to change that, because I could see that the current model we had had just wasn’t creating a dialogue to justify new funding. And that’s the difficulty.”

Voting for confrontation

Yet that difficult, often confrontational relationship between the ministry and school board seems to be just what the people of Vancouver want, if election results are any indication.

As board chair for six years, Bacchus was arguably the most recognizable and outspoken trustee on the board. She isn’t popular with everyone in Vancouver. But she has topped the polls in every school board election she has run in, though her percentage of the overall vote slipped to 40 per cent in 2014 from 50 per cent in 2008 and 2011.

“I’ve run every time on a platform that I want to be an advocate. I don’t want to be a bureaucrat who just goes in and does the government’s bidding,” Bacchus said. “That’s really a management job.”

Ever since the Common Schools Act passed in 1865, the role of school boards in B.C. has been that of a steward.

The role of advocate, whether for more education funding, smaller class sizes or even keeping costs down, says Jason Ellis, a University of British Columbia education studies’ assistant professor, is a relatively new one.

School boards, like hospital boards today, used to be appointed by the provincial government. The School Act still gives the minister the power to appoint boards if they wish.

So if a board can be fired for its advocacy runs afoul of the School Act, why bother to elect boards at all?

But Ellis says places in Canada that have appointed boards, like Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, went back to elections.

“You have to think of the public schools as an institution that’s broader than any other in our society, because it affects nearly everybody,” said Ellis. “There’s nothing that has that effect: nobody sends their kid to the hospital every day from age five to 18.”

That makes the actions of school boards personal to families with children in the system, and those who believe in public education. And the personal, as they say, is political.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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