Monday, April 4, 2011

Trustee Advocacy - Is it happening?

"When teachers and Trustees work together, things change". I remember this comment like it was yesterday. I was taking a course called "The History of Education in British Columbia", and this was the theme that ran through the hundred and fifty years we studied.

School Board Trustees are in an ideal position to be advocates for our public system and to speak out loudly when the provincial government does not provide adequate funding for our schools. They are elected by local citizens, which gives them the authority to speak on our behalf. They have taken an oath of office to ensure that they provide quality services for children, which means they have an obligation to speak out if they feel they are unable to provide the needed level of service with the funds provided. They are aware of the inner workings of the Districts and know how cuts affect kids and what their budgets look like.

Since 1991, funding for BCs public schools has decreased by almost half. In constant dollars, the BC public school system received $9 billion in 1991 and receives $5 billion today. The effects on students, teachers, administrators, support workers and parents is significant. Every worker in the system is constantly battling to do more with less. Stress and burnout are pervasive. More are leaving the teaching profession after a few short years. Classes are overcrowded. Students with special needs are not getting the supports they need. Students are doing work - answering telephones, cleaning recycling bins, tutoring. Vital programs are cut and eliminated. School buildings are not properly maintained. School lands are sold to meet budget shortfalls. Parents spend their time fund-raising for playgrounds, instead of reading with children. Collectively, we are trying to make up for that missing $4 billion to keep our schools as vibrant and healthy as they should be.

How have Trustees responded?

A small number of Trustees have been fantastic advocates and worked tirelessly to bring these issues forward to government, to citizens, to the media. Top on my list is Patti Bacchus, the Board Chair in Vancouver. Not only has she personally put countless hours in as an advocate for BC students, she has led a Board that sees advocacy as essential to fulfill its mandate in the current climate of chronic underfunding. If every Board followed the Vancouver lead, we would have a force to be reckoned with.

A larger number of Trustees and Boards have, under pressure from their constituents, written letters to the Ministry regarding funding issues. I haven't counted, but I think it is about 20 - 30 Boards that have done this. It is an excellent first step, but it falls far short of what is needed. One letter after twenty years of cuts just doesn't do it. And where are those letters now?

Our District had the letter posted on the web site for a month or two, and then it was gone. I haven't heard it mentioned since. Our Board, after much pressure, sent a parallel "deficit" budget to the Ministry. But that didn't even make it to the web site. There was no press release. The Board Chair did not go to the media. In response to two Trustees very actively pushing the Board to do more, a small committee was set up. But the reality is that there is no will on our Board to speak out publicly, to make a fuss, to be advocates. With the exception of these two Trustees, they don't come to community meetings on funding, they don't speak to the media, they don't advocate. They come back, year after year, and make more cuts.

It is time for this to change. Trustees should not be silent in the face of a wholesale attack on the public system. One of our Trustees, Michael McEvoy, who is now running to be President of the BC School Trustees Association, proudly put on his election campaign materials his support for a public school system. But he voted to shut schools. He voted to sell school lands. He voted for over size classes. He voted for the cuts - year after year.

Polls shows that parents and the public depend on teachers, administrators and trustees to inform them of the health and well being of schools. It is time for all Trustees to do their part and stand up and speak up. Loud and clear.


  1. A couple questions: when you say "the media," do you mean the provincial/Vancouver media? (or at least provincial media + Victoria, in your case)

    And therefore is advocacy measured in provincial media appearances?

    In relation, I'm not familiar enough with the situation in Victoria, but do you feel that your community elects trustees to be primarily provincial advocates for students and public education, or local advocates?

    I can say for certain that the vast majority of trustees ran on local platforms, were elected locally, and focus almost all of their time on local initiatives, duties and challenges, whether these are caused by provincial decisions or not. This important work is largely invisible on the provincial stage, but it is also what constitutes "local autonomy."

    Even with limited funding, there is no limit to considerable local decisions that are (or aren't) made by boards, and we need to make these decisions well for the best interests of our students. I happen to believe that provincial advocacy is still part of the picture, but not a large part. Our board on the Sunshine Coast certainly communicates publicly about our funding challenges, but we focus this entirely on our local community that elected us. My understanding is that most boards in the province operate this way.

    Of course Vancouver is a unique situation because they can take the very same approach with their "local" media but when they do understandably the whole province hears about it. In fact when the NPA was the majority and Ken Denike was chair, for the same reasons he was one of the leading "advocate" for boards and public funding, too -- if advocacy is to be measured by media uptake in Vancouver.

  2. Advocacy at the local level should be visible to constituents, surely? I've looked hard and found few examples of SD61 trustees acting to promote children's interests by insisting on appropriate supports for students with special needs and adequate funding to fulfill the board's mandate. The current budget is a good example. The district is congratulating itself on its tiny surplus, and ignoring the increase in the number of classes that violate the Bill 33 rules and limp along with a part-time EA to support an overwhelmed teacher. How is a teacher supposed to support five or six kids with high levels of need in a split 4/5 class with 28 or 30 students and several English language learners? All of the elementary classes in this district that are most needy are in high-poverty schools. There are devastating consequences to this inequity. The school trustees have been unwilling to address them, and the district PAC apparently thinks that funding is outside its mandate (and that talking about the numbers of children with special needs constitutes discrimination rather than concern for their needs). We need to hear from trustees that they are visiting classrooms, talking to teachers about the adequacy of the "consultation" process, and listening to parents about, for example, the poorly provisioned full-day K classes in some of our schools. Then the trustees could take that information back to the Ministry and push for adequate levels of staffing and materials. That would be advocacy.