The Parent Advocacy Network (PAN) is concerned with aspects of the recently released Goldner Report that imply that those who ask probing questions or disagree with policy decisions are considered a problem. This approach is incompatible with citizens’ rights within our democracy. While we do not condone behaviour that is rude, abusive, or intimidating, it is the right and duty of citizens to examine and call into question, when necessary, the actions of any public body, including the Vancouver School Board (VSB), on issues that directly impact their communities and families.
The policies of the VSB clearly state that “The Board has an obligation to listen to citizens' concerns” and that “the concept of Board membership as a public trust also implies, however, that the public frequently approaches individual Board members with specific requests or concerns.” The obligation of trustees and stakeholder representatives is to hear and represent the public’s concerns to staff and is especially germane when the proposed policies will have severe impacts in both the short term (on current students) and the long term (on the delivery and availability of public education in Vancouver for generations to come). Respectful questioning directed towards best possible and impartial decision making in the educational interests of students is due diligence and should not be equated with partisan political intent.
During the public consultation processes for the VSB Long Range Facilities Plan, the 2016/17 Budget, and the potential school closures, staff and trustees heard strong, heartfelt, and passionate appeals from students, parents, teachers, staff, on-site childcare providers, non-profit groups, and many others. Citizens affected by budget and policy decisions within the district were motivated to speak out, to express concern or even outrage because their communities, their lives, and the lives of their children were being severely impacted. These responses were not partisan; they were personal.
Within the current public education paradigm—which includes insufficient and unstable funding, annual budget shortfalls, and uncertain implications of the Supreme Court ruling such as impact for special needs children and kindergarten registration—parents are engaged, concerned, and have the right to be heard. PAN believes that all children have a right to high quality public education, accessible in their own neighbourhoods, in educationally appropriate and seismically safe buildings with the resources and staff necessary to meet their learning needs. We are committed to informed, respectful, and non-partisan advocacy to raise awareness about the need for secure, adequately funded, and sustainable public education for BC’s children and for the wellbeing of our whole society.
We stand by our concerns and our communications that were respectfully written and relayed to the VSB staff and trustees regarding the Long Range Facilities Plan, the school closure list, and the closure consultation process. We raised relevant issues and asked probing questions in an effort to ensure that, if school closures were necessary, schools would be closed in a manner and through a process that ensured future sustainability and equity in public education in our city.
We will continue to advocate for the best possible public education for our children and all children in Vancouver, as is our right, by speaking up and asking questions about the policies, actions, and plans of the VSB, whether it is led by elected or appointed trustees.
Asking questions does not equate to partisanship or disrespect. It is an important and necessary duty of citizens in a democracy.
Dr. Paul Shaker, professor emeritus and former Dean of Education at SFU is hosting a a video series dedicated to education issues. PAN was invited to be part of a series of podcasts exploring the challenges and possible solutions for education issues.
Below are two podcasts by PAN members.
Here is the link to the entire series which includes videos by: Alex Hemingway, Canadian Council on Policy Alternatives; Janet Zlotnik, PENS; and Mike Lombardi, former chair of VSB.
Today we issued the following media release in cooperation with 7 other parent and advocacy groups (Chilliwack DPAC, Comox Valley Families for Public Education, Families Against Cuts to Education, Public Education Network Society, Richmond Schools Stand United, Seismic Safety for BC Schools Committee, Surrey Students Now).
The BC government has characterized its 2017 Fiscal Plan as “providing an additional $740 million over three years to the education budget.” However, this budget does not put sufficient money behind the Finance Minister's statement that education is the "most important" service the government provides. Budget 2017 does not redress the current deficiencies in our public education system nor does it provide the adequate, predictable, and sustainable funding necessary to ensure a quality equitable education for all children.
The Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education (PAN) in cooperation with parent and advocacy groups--Chilliwack DPAC, Comox Valley Families for Public Education, Families Against Cuts to Education, Public Education Network Society, Richmond Schools Stand United, Seismic Safety for BC Schools Committee, Surrey Students Now—are deeply disappointed by the government’s allocation of funds for public education within Budget 2017.
While it is a relief to have a budget without overt cuts to public education, parents across BC know that this is the bare minimum that government is obligated to provide without being in contempt of court or in contravention of its own per-pupil funding formula. “This budget does not address the systemic, structural inadequacy of the per-pupil funding model that continues to undermine and erode our public education system. The government again cut education funding in last year’s budget and this one barely maintains the scarce status quo. This is unacceptable after 15 years of cumulative cuts,” said parent and PAN co-founder Andrea Sinclair.
We acknowledge and welcome the $320 million in provisional funding allocated to comply with the Supreme Court of Canada ruling and restore class size and composition language that was unlawfully removed from contracts in 2002, and we expect that the full amount will be reflected in the revised budget once a final settlement has been reached. This money will enable school districts to begin to address untenable classroom conditions and improve supports for students with special learning needs.
In response to the budget, the BC School Trustees Association (BCSTA) stated: “Beyond funding additional teachers, school trustees will be looking for government to meet their commitment to funding such key needs as additional classrooms, corresponding support staff increases and school district operational budgets.” These needs are not currently addressed in Budget 2017, and will not be covered by the settlement with the teachers. Like the BCSTA, we expect government to provide the requisite funding to meet these increased costs.
The government states that it is “adding” $228 million over three years to address increased enrolment levels. To call this “additional” funding is disingenuous: increasing funding to reflect enrolment growth according its own per-pupil formula is the government’s legal obligation and not a funding increase. The government has failed to address the fact that the current per-pupil funding amount, which doesn’t even reflect inflation, is insufficient for school districts to meet the educational needs of BC’s children.
Similarly, reinstating previously funded services such as busing in rural areas is not “extra” funding, nor is the partial return of forced “administrative savings.” In November 2016, BCSTA advised government that school districts would require an additional $96 million for 2017/18 above and beyond these “relief” funds restored in the spring of 2016, merely to maintain services at current levels. As a result of this $96 million structural deficit, school districts with stable or declining enrolment will once again need to cut programming and vital student supports.
Parents cannot be placated with a one-time $27.4 million Student Learning Grant for supplies to “help defray” fundraising pressures. A one-off partial restoration of the $29 million that was stripped from operational funding in 2015, which amounts to little more than $50 per student, is insulting to parents and demonstrates a complete failure to comprehend the degree to which underfunding has decimated public education. The government must do more than “help defray costs”; it is the government’s duty to provide a quality and fully funded public education that encompasses the full curriculum and is accessible to all children regardless of ability or economic means.
Budget 2017 does not provide supports for the thousands of children designated with special needs that do not qualify for funding under the current model. It does not provide relief for children living in poverty, who require additional supports to succeed in school. It does not restore the staff or resources necessary to support arts education in elementary schools. It does not allow high schools to offer the full range of core and elective courses reflected in the new curriculum. It does not address the cumulative deficit of digital technologies, books, equipment, and educational supplies, including furniture, which schools rely on parents and charitable organizations to provide. It does not provide the funding necessary for districts to begin to address the hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance that is evident in the decrepit state of many school buildings.
The government’s continued failure to provide adequate, predictable, and sustainable funding for K-12 public education to meet the learning needs of all students and the resulting disparity between educational equality based on economic advantage that is occurring as a direct result is in contravention of the democratic purpose of education as set out in the BC School Act.
We reiterate our call on the provincial government to increase K-12 public education annual operational funding by 20% to redress all of the current deficiencies and reprioritize our education system to ensure an equitable quality education for all children.
See Provincial Letter and Declaration in Defence of Public Education.
Today we sent the following letter to Christy Clark, Premier of BC, Mike de Jong, Minister of Finance and
Mike Bernier, Minister of Education endorsed by 8 additional parent and advocacy groups (listed with links at end of letter)
(download news release & letter; link to PAN's 'Declaration in Defense of Public Education')
Dear Premier and Ministers,
The purpose of the provincial education system is set out in the BC School Act: to enable all learners—regardless of race, gender, ability, or economic means—“to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.” Furthermore, the BC Statement of Education Policy Order (Mandate for the School System) confirms that “government is responsible for ensuring that all of our youth have the opportunity to obtain high-quality schooling that will assist in the development of an educated society.” In practice, provincial funding for K-12 public education has proven inadequate to satisfy this mandate.
The current service plan of $4.6 billion in operational grants for public education for 2016/17 is insufficient to provide all children in BC, without discrimination, equal access to educational opportunities across the entire curriculum and in accordance with their learning needs to allow them to reach their full potential as individuals and as citizens of our society.
Therefore, we demand that the provincial government increase K-12 public education annual operational funding by 20% to redress all of the current deficiencies and fully prioritize and revitalize our education system to ensure an equitable quality education for all children.
Each year, structural underfunding has forced school districts across BC to “balance budgets” with increasingly deficient funds—specialist teachers, teacher librarians, core programs, basic resources, and vital student and special needs supports have been systematically and cumulatively eliminated from schools, disproportionate to enrolment decline. The reprehensible reality is that half a million children are being denied equitable and full access to the educational opportunities to which they are entitled under the BC School Act and which are emphasized within the revised BC curriculum. As a result, parents are subsidizing their children’s education by raising funds to equip schools with basic educational resources; many parents are privately outsourcing art and music classes, sports programing and vital remedial supports. Children whose parents lack the means to make up for government underfunding—and there are many: 19.3% of BC’s children live in poverty—must do without. In these ways, underfunding has created unacceptable inequality in educational opportunity for children based on economic advantage. This situation undermines the very democratic principles of equitable access to education on which the BC School Act is predicated.
This grave situation has repeatedly been brought to the attention of the government through letters from individual school districts and the BC School Trustees Association and from its own all-party Select Standing Committee for Finance and Government Services (2014/15, 2015/16, and 2016/17), which affirmed that public education is not adequately supported by public funds. Most recently the unequivocal ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada (November 2016) has confirmed that the stripping of class size and composition language from the teachers’ collective agreement was unlawful—an action that has had innumerable detrimental impacts on educational opportunities for children over the past 15 years.
While we welcome the $50 million interim deal and the immediate relief it will provide, we have yet to hear a commitment to provide the estimated $300 million in additional, predictable, ongoing operational funds that would be needed to comply with the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling.
The government of British Columbia has claimed that our province “has the strongest and fastest growing economy in Canada”. As we live in a province of prosperity with a $2-billion-plus budget surplus, there is no impediment for government to discharge its financial and legal responsibility to establish a level of funding that ensures the "needs of students are met first and foremost”.
Public education is the key repository of the democratic values of our society and the foundation of our common “wealth”. All children must have the educational opportunity to reach their individual potential to safeguard the health, stability, and prosperity of our future society for its citizens.
We defend the right of all BC children to receive high-quality public education, accessible in their own neighbourhoods, in educationally appropriate and seismically safe buildings with the resources and staff necessary to meet their learning needs. Therefore we, the Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education (PAN), with the undersigned and in solidarity with parents and citizens across the province, submit the following demands:
THAT ALL CHILDREN IN BC ATTEND SAFE AND EDUCATIONALLY APPROPRIATE SCHOOLS
The government states “the safety of BC students is vital.” Despite the commitment to upgrade all public school facilities identified as being at “High Risk” of structural collapse in an earthquake, only 155 of 342 schools have been completed. There is a lack of transparency in the seismic approval process which deems many schools ineligible or sees many stalled at the project definition stage, in some instances for more than 10 years. Parents refuse to accept the glacial speed of seismic upgrades. With the government’s revised target date of 2025/2030 approaching, there remain 118 schools which have not yet even begun the seismic approval process.
School districts in the Lower Mainland must try to coordinate multiple projects simultaneously, including seismic upgrades. The failure to provide new facilities in areas of population growth such as Chilliwack and Surrey has led to overcrowding and the proliferation of temporary portables as “permanent” facilities, as well as the busing of children over long distances. Furthermore, funding constraints are pressuring school districts to cut costs to “balance budgets” by closing schools even though smaller neighbourhood schools are shown to be the best learning environments for children. All school districts need sufficient funds and flexibility to implement a truly comprehensive plan that respects districts’ priorities for social and economic sustainability.
The government’s bottom-dollar approach to seismic projects—its refusal to fund temporary accommodation, its piecemeal approach to project approval, and its continued use of discriminatory capacity thresholds as a precondition for funding—obstructs progress and jeopardizes children’s lives. It is imperative that government make available sufficient capital funding to ensure all children learn in safe and educationally appropriate facilities.
Therefore we demand:
THAT ALL CHILDREN IN BC RECEIVE FULLY-FUNDED HIGH QUALITY EDUCATION ACROSS THE ENTIRE CURRICULUM
The new BC curriculum encompasses the full spectrum of human and social development across cultural, aesthetic, social, physical, and academic domains. However, the combination of chronic underfunding, and government policies that narrow the scope of “educational outcomes” has depleted the quality and breadth of educational opportunities for K-12 public education.
The BC School Act recognizes both the civic and economic responsibility in developing each student’s individual potential, by equipping students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic, and pluralistic society. However, the recent Ministry of Education Service Plan for 2016-2019 which outlines the government’s aim for the transformation of the education system has redefined K-12 education for a purely economic purpose. This has massive repercussions for our society’s the security and stability, which depends, more than ever, on compassionate, broad minded citizens who can shape our future society on the principles of equality, tolerance, justice and environmental sustainability for all.
In elementary schools across BC, underfunding has decimated arts education largely through the loss of specialist teachers. This has been reinforced by the Ministry of Education Area Standards, which eliminates art, music, and performance spaces from standard elementary school design blueprints. The arts are part of the core BC curriculum; they are crucial to the development of social-emotional health and skills necessary to participate in the creative economy of the 21st century. They have been shown through evidence-based research to be instrumental in closing the gap between life outcomes for children raised in poverty.
In secondary schools, the changes to graduation requirements (2004), including a reduction in upper-level course requirements and the specific elimination of fine arts and applied skills, second language proficiency, and physical education as core requirements, have depleted the availability and accessibility of core and elective courses. This is further exacerbated by the government’s endorsement of outsourced equivalency credits and severe funding constraints which only allow courses to run at full capacity. As a result of diminished options available in local secondary schools, students are forced to take courses online, travel between high schools, or most often do without. This has serious consequences for the equitable access of high school students to a quality education and the limiting of future vocational and post-secondary opportunities.
Therefore we demand:
THAT ALL CHILDREN IN BC HAVE ACCESS TO THE STAFF AND RESOURCES THEY NEED TO LEARN
The government’s own policy on diversity in BC schools clearly states that the school system “should strive to ensure that differences among learners do not impede their participation in schools, their mastery of learning outcomes, or their ability to become contributing members of society.” These differences include language, ability, and socio-economic background. However, current funding does not allow for the meaningful inclusion of children with special needs within manageably sized classrooms, teaching support for English Language Learners (ELL), sufficient levels of assistance for vulnerable children, or the equitable access to educational resources and programming across all schools. This is a betrayal of our most vulnerable children.
Government’s own data has shown that class size and classroom composition have worsened over the last 15 years. These problems are particularly notable at the primary level, where average class sizes have increased despite persistently high percentages of ELL students and increasing numbers of special needs children. In grades 4-12 the number of classes with four or more students entitled to an Individual Education Plan (IEP) has increased from 10,172 in 2007/8 to 16,274 in 2015/16. Shamefully, less than 50% of the 60,871 children entitled to an IEP in 2015/16 received any additional funding for support. A BC Parents of Special Needs survey reports that 31% of children with special needs who have left the public system did so due to lack of appropriate classroom support. Their parents cited deteriorating emotional health of their child as the significant factor.
Poverty is still the greatest impediment to academic and personal achievement for children. Levels of child poverty remain persistently high at 19.3% on average across BC, with 109,331 school-aged children today living below the poverty line. Poverty disproportionately impacts children of Aboriginal, immigrant and single-parent families. Research shows that smaller schools and class sizes make a significant and positive impact on educational outcomes for vulnerable children and that improving educational outcomes produces long-term economic and societal benefits. The current funding supplements, designed to address the impacts of poverty, have not increased beyond inflation since their inception in 2004, and are woefully inadequate to address the needs of children in poverty.
Inequalities are further exacerbated by the lack of funding for basic educational resources. Current funding is incapable of supporting the personalized learning and hands-on experiences promoted by the revised BC curriculum. For example, all children need access to digital technologies to fulfill the curricular competencies of communication in the 21st century. However, chronic underfunding forces parents to raise funds to purchase basic digital technology denying children in areas of lower socio-economic status equal access to the educational opportunities guaranteed them under the BC School Act. As parents are compelled to raise funds to equip schools with basic educational resources supplies—classroom supplies, library books, sports equipment, musical instruments, art supplies, and even items like desks and chairs, blackout curtains, and carpets—it is self-evident there are insufficient funds to provide the basic resources necessary to operate schools.
Therefore we demand:
Current annual funding for K-12 public education is insufficient for government to satisfy its mandate to provide a high quality education to all learners as outlined in the BC School Act and the BC Statement of Education Policy Order. Government’s assertion of “record funding” serves to obscure the everyday reality in schools.
Structural underfunding, the persistent erosion of the breadth and quality of educational programs, and the continual reduction of resources within the public system have cumulatively created unacceptable levels of inequality and discrimination that violate the democratic purpose of the education system. This has dire implications for the future health, stability, and economic prosperity of our province as they are dependent on the strength of our public education system, as the foundation of our common “wealth”.
We reiterate that the provincial government must increase K-12 public education annual operational funding by 20% to redress all of the current deficiencies and fully prioritize and revitalize our education system to ensure an equitable quality education for all children.
Investing in the provision of a high-quality education for all children in this province is your legal obligation and duty as representatives of the citizens of British Columbia. Anything less is a betrayal of public trust.
Signed on behalf of these parent and advocacy groups:
Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education
Chilliwack District Parent Advisory Council
Comox Valley Families for Public Education
Families Against Cuts to Education
Public Education Network Society
Richmond Schools Stand United
Seismic Safety for BC Schools Committee
South East Kootenay District Parent Advisory Council
Surrey Students Now
(download pdf version)
Joint Statement by PAN and FACE on the Supreme Court of Canada’s Decision in the BCTF Case
We know that many parents have questions about the meaning and impact of the Supreme Court’s recent decision. What follows is a brief explanation of the decision, its consequences, and the ongoing concerns of the Parent Advocacy Network (PAN) and Families Against Cuts to Education (FACE) with regard to the underfunding of public education in BC.
The Supreme Court’s decision
On November 10, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruled in favour of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF). The ruling ended the long-running dispute between the BCTF and the BC government that began in 2002 when the BC government used legislation to strip class size and composition matters out of the teachers’ collective agreement (contract). The SCC did not write reasons of its own; it adopted the reasons of Mr. Justice Donald’s dissent in the BC Court of Appeal.
The essence of Mr. Justice Donald’s decision is that the BC government did not bargain in good faith before it brought in a second round of legislation in 2012, after the 2002 legislation was found unconstitutional. Therefore, the BC government’s 2012 legislation, which was very similar to the 2002 legislation, was also unconstitutional. As a remedy, Mr. Justice Donald ordered that the stripped class size and composition sections must be returned to the collective agreement immediately.
As of 2014, the collective agreement between the BCTF and the BC government contains a clause that says “If the final judgment affects the content of the collective agreement by fully or partially restoring the 2002 language, the parties will reopen the collective agreement on this issue and the parties will bargain from the restored language.”
What the decision means and doesn’t mean
The combined effect of the court decision and the clause in the collective agreement means that the BCTF and the BC government must now engage in good faith negotiations on the topic of class size and composition, with the restored language as a starting point for those negotiations.
It is important to understand the legal meaning of “good faith” in collective bargaining. Here is how Mr. Justice Donald explained it in his reasons:
Parties are required to meet and engage in meaningful dialogue where positions are explained and each party reads, listens to, and considers representations made by the other party. Parties’ positions must not be inflexible and intransigent, and parties must honestly strive to find a middle ground.
The BCTF’s court victory does not mean that we are immediately transported back to the school conditions that existed in 2002, prior to the unconstitutional legislation. It means that the BCTF and the BC government must meet and do their good-faith best to reach an agreement on class size and composition. PAN and FACE hope that both parties will do what is right for our kids. Since the 2002 contract stripping, our kids have been in larger classes with fewer supports, and we have seen crucial non-enrolling positions like art teachers, librarians, counselors, ELL teachers, and Special Education teachers disappear from our children’s schools.
The court’s ruling also doesn’t mean that public education’s underfunding problem is solved. While the negotiations will hopefully lead to better supports for kids and more non-enrolling teachers in schools, there are costs that fall outside the collective agreement that have increased and not been funded, and those are not solved with this decision. For instance, the BC government has required school districts to upgrade their internet connectivity but has not funded that work (Next Generation Network). The BC government has also agreed that principals and other administrators should get a much-delayed raise, but has not increased funding to the districts to enable them to pay these raises without making cuts elsewhere. There are many other such costs; these are just two examples to demonstrate that underfunding is not solved by the resolution of the BCTF’s case.
We are pleased that Mr. de Jong, BC’s Minister of Finance, has declared his desire to immediately begin negotiations in good faith with the BCTF. We remind the Minister that increasing funding to ameliorate class size and composition is only the first step in restoring a level of funding for public education sufficient for all of BC's children to have access to the staff, resources, and facilities they need for a quality education that meets their learning needs. Parents are still fundraising for essential resources such as library books, classroom furniture, technology, and arts programming, and there are still tens of thousands of children in schools across BC that remain at high risk of structural failure in the event of an earthquake.
A net increase in funding is required
PAN and FACE will continue to advocate for adequate funding that covers all the costs of equitably providing quality public education. We also must be vigilant to ensure that, if the BC government is required to put more money into public education in order to fund increased staffing levels required by any agreement it may reach with the BCTF, it does not “make up” for that increased funding by clawing back money from other areas of public education. There is history to support this caution: In 2014, the BC government promised to “fully fund” the costs of the settlement it reached with the BCTF that year; yet in Budget 2015, the BC government forced districts to make $54 million in “administrative” cuts. Due to the years of previous cuts leaving no “low hanging fruit” to cut, those “administrative” cuts resulted in direct effects on kids and their ability to equitably access quality public education.
We will be watching to make sure that the BC government does not attempt to minimize the costs of a negotiated agreement on class size and composition by making cuts in other areas such as seismic upgrades, maintenance, and support services. There is no area of public education in which further cuts can be justified. What public education needs is improved, stable, predictable funding that allows districts to provide quality education to all learners in seismically safe buildings.
PAN, in cooperation with parent and advocacy groups — Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, Richmond Schools Stand United, Surrey Students Now, Comox Valley Families for Public Education, Families Against Cuts to Education BC— recently sent a letter calling on the Government of Canada to direct infrastructure funding towards urgently needed seismic upgrades in British Columbia’s public schools. Doing so will enable the federal government to ensure the health and safety of thousands of Canadians (most of them children), provide post-quake emergency shelters, and meet its goals of investing in social infrastructure to lay the foundation for Canada’s future.
We question why our children’s safety is discussed in the context of political games and priorities and treated as an education budget item. We believe public school buildings should not be linked to the education budget. In a province with a massive budget surplus, it is unacceptable that tens of thousands of children go to school every day in high-risk schools that will collapse in even a moderate earthquake.
To reinforce this important message to the Federal Government, TAKE 5 is a quick way to reach more Members of Parliament (MPs). We thank the parents of Seismic Safety for BC Schools for this easy but powerful advocacy idea.
Please TAKE 5 to support this collective effort and send an email to your local MP asking how they plan to address this child safety issue and how they plan to hlep the federal government meet this critical safety need.
United we are STRONGER! The more pressure they feel from more people, the more our government will be forced to listen and act.
Today, while the kids, teachers, staff, and administrators in public schools are doing the "Great BC ShakeOut drill and practising to "“Drop! Cover! Hold on!”, we are advocating for their safety and the safety of the community. We wrote an op-ed titled "Making Schools Safe For Children Shouldn't be a Political Issue" that was published in The Province on Wednesday, October 19, 2016. And in cooperation with parent and advocacy groups--Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, Richmond Schools Stand United, Surrey Students Now, Comox Valley Families for Public Education, Families Against Cuts to Education BC— we sent the following letter to the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister, the Honourable Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and the Honourable Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities asking the Government of Canada to direct infrastructure funding towards urgently needed seismic upgrades in British Columbia’s public schools. Doing so will enable the federal government to ensure the health and safety of thousands of Canadians (most of them children), provide post-quake emergency shelters, and meet its goals of investing in social infrastructure to lay the foundation for Canada’s future.
In a prosperous province with a massive budget surplus, it is unacceptable that thousands of children go to school every day in high risk schools that will collapse in even a moderate earthquake. Seismically upgrading schools is an urgent matter of public safety, and as such it needs to be prioritized and well funded.
[download a pdf of the letter]
Dear Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Goodale, and Mr. Sohi,
We write to you today to ask that the Government of Canada direct infrastructure funding towards urgently needed seismic upgrades in British Columbia’s public schools. Doing so will enable the federal government to ensure the health and safety of thousands of Canadians (most of them children), provide post-quake emergency shelters, and meet its goals of investing in social infrastructure in order to lay the foundation for Canada’s future.
Background & Context
The BC provincial government initiated its Seismic Mitigation Plan (SMP) in 2004 and identified 342 “High Risk” schools across the province. Buildings that are designated “High Risk” are likely to suffer structural failure (collapse) during even a moderate earthquake and be unusable afterwards. In 2005, the BC Liberal government promised British Columbians that “all at-risk schools in BC would be seismically upgraded by 2020.” In 2008, the BC Auditor General reported “Southwestern BC is an earthquake environment similar to that of the coasts of Japan, Alaska, and Central and South America.”
As of September 2016, 155 upgrades have been completed, 6 are “proceeding to construction” (but work not begun), 21 are “under construction” (but several have not yet broken ground), and 42 are at the business-case stage. A staggering 118 have not even begun the process yet— 44 of these are rated H1 and the majority are in Vancouver, Richmond, and Surrey—resulting in 35 percent of “High Risk” schools that have not even been discussed after 12 years. The initial 2020 completion date for 342 upgrades has now been pushed back to 2025, and for Vancouver as late as 2030. Currently thousands of BC kids—for example, there are 28,000 in Vancouver and 7,000 in Richmond, in addition to thousands of teachers, administrators, and support staff—spend their days in “High Risk” schools.
Why aren’t all the remaining SMP projects across BC moving full-steam ahead? In 2013, the provincial government stated it would be up to school districts to “confirm the scope, schedule, budget and risks” associated with individual seismic projects before they will receive approval to move to the design and construction phase. In 2015, delays were caused by disagreements over the scope of the projects. Additionally, the Ministry of Education did not want to pay for students to be accommodated in portables while their schools were being upgraded. This is reflective of a general failure to prioritize public education spending in BC. As a result, the process has become glacial.
Replacement Schools – Better Long-Term Investment than Retrofit
The BC government’s steadfast reluctance to properly fund education extends to the type of seismic upgrade projects it chooses to pay for. It has taken a “lowest-cost” approach that disregards long-term economic considerations and the public good that is served by well-built school buildings. Retrofitting a school so that it can stand up long enough after an earthquake for kids to get out alive is often the lowest-cost choice, as opposed to replacing it with a new building. But consider the ramifications.
Replacing an old school can eliminate millions in deferred maintenance costs—Vancouver alone has over $700 million in deferred maintenance. These are buildings that, in addition to being seismically unsafe, are over 100 years old, are not easily accessible, don’t have enough facilities like washrooms, and aren’t designed to enable 21st-century learning. They are less energyefficient than newer buildings and contain lead pipes, lead paint, and asbestos. These issues are not necessarily addressed during a seismic retrofit. Retrofitting will reduce the chances of children being crushed by their schools, but they might still have to run through clouds of asbestos dust to get to safety.
Retrofitted buildings are designed to meet the standard of letting occupants get out alive; they are not designed to be usable after a huge earthquake. Replacement buildings are designed to be usable the next day. So saving a bit of money now by taking the retrofit option would be more expensive later if we need to rebuild these schools after an earthquake. Given the enormous impacts (including financial) of such a disaster, why not get it right the first time— build new, safe, usable buildings—and save money in the long term as lives depend on it?
Families and communities need these buildings to be usable after the earthquake. Schools are the very heart of a neighbourhood and will be required as emergency shelters for individuals and families who’ve lost their homes. In times of crisis, when people need to flee their homes, they go to the hearts of their communities: schools. They sleep in rows of cots in the gym; they camp out on the playing fields. The City of Vancouver has designated 25 community centres as disaster support hubs. Given the distance between these hubs and the numbers of people that will be affected by a catastrophic earthquake, schools too will be needed as additional safe places.
It’s an Infrastructure and Public Safety Issue, Not an Education Issue
The buildings in which our children spend the majority of their day should keep them safe in an earthquake, not present a compounded threat and jeopardize their safety. Seismically upgrading schools is an urgent matter of public safety.
Why is the safety of our children discussed in the context of political games and priorities and treated as an education budget item? The structural and seismic safety of public school buildings should not be linked to the education budget.
Across Canada, roads, bridges, tunnels, libraries, and arenas are public safety and infrastructure projects. Public Safety Canada’s mandate is to keep Canadians safe from a range of risks such as natural disasters. Infrastructure Canada is responsible for building stronger communities by making new investments in social infrastructure such as early learning and child care and arguably public schools. For the first time in Canadian history, youth is now part of a prime minister’s portfolio—children and youth under the age of 24 represent almost 29 percent of Canadians.
An injection of federal funding for “shovel-ready” projects will have multiple benefits: it will enable projects that are fully planned but have been waiting for years for Treasury Board funding approval to finally get started; it will assist schools that have not even begun the process yet to finally see light at the end of a long tunnel; and it will take some of the funding pressure off of the provincial government, thus enabling it to devote adequate funding to school districts’ operational budgets.
As the Federal Government is responsible for public safety and infrastructure and Prime Minister Trudeau himself has retained the Portfolio of Youth, we the undersigned call on the Prime Minister and the Federal Government to fulfill their responsibilities and to immediately make federal funds available to seismically upgrade BC public schools. It’s time to do right by our children and stop putting their lives at risk.
Signed on behalf of these parent and advocacy groups:
Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education
Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition
Richmond Schools Stand United
Surrey Schools Now
Comox Valley Families for Public Education
Families Against Cuts to Education BC
(download a pdf of this media release)
October 18, 2016
Parent Advocacy Network Responds to Dismissal of Vancouver Board of Education Trustees
The Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education (PAN) is greatly alarmed by Minister of Education Mike Bernier’s firing yesterday of the democratically elected Vancouver Board of Education Trustees. Min. Bernier stated they were “dismissed for failing to comply with the School Act, which required the Board to adopt a “balanced budget” by June 30, 2016". This budget—which has been implemented despite the Board’s rejection—involves $21.8 million dollars in cuts to vital educational services which are already being felt by students, families and teachers.
The Minister of Education knowingly fired the VBE mere hours before it was expected to officially pass the budget in question. This was the latest requirement for funding to upgrade the 68 Vancouver schools that are still seismically unsafe. PAN is baffled as to why the Minister would now circumvent the Board’s effort to comply with his demand. We are also curious as to why yesterday’s announcement preempted the release of the special advisor’s report intended to make public any irregularities in the Board's fiscal management or governance, which was prepared at considerable cost to taxpayers.
Since 2014, the VSB had been under pressure by the provincial government to close schools to achieve an arbitrary 95% capacity utilization target as a condition for securing seismic funding. This target and the government's refusal to fund temporary accommodation of students or to entertain any seismic mitigation proposal other than the lowest-cost option, left the VSB no option other than a shortsighted stuff-and-close approach that would seriously compromise the ability of the VSB to provide equitable access to a quality education both now and into the future. Although this target was recently rescinded without warning, seismic funding still appears to be tied to school closure. However the unprecedented and simultaneous closure of 11 schools would only have saved the VSB $5 million in operating costs, despite reaching a 92% capacity utilization across the district. This means the VSB would need to close the equivalent of 33 schools to address the current projected shortfall for 2017-18 to meet its legal obligation to balance its budget. Is this what Bernier is referring to as responsible stewardship?
As we have stated previously, a balanced budget is neither evidence of sufficient funding nor indicative of the ability of school boards to provide equitable access to quality public education for all children. We respectfully remind the Minister that for over a decade, structural underfunding has forced school boards across this province to balance their budgets every year on the backs of students, by stripping educational services, increasing class sizes, reducing staffing and closing neighbourhood and community schools. Threats and reprisals towards democratically elected officials who are standing up for the educational interests of children presents a very disturbing picture of the politics currently at play.
Regardless of who is making decisions at the VSB, they are still hampered by the same austerity paradigm that is dismantling our public education system. Will a government-appointed Trustee be allowed to make decisions in the long-term interests of the children and the public education system in this city? How will this appointee “develop a plan to put VSB on firm financial footing” while simultaneously “preserving education services for students” without any increase in funding?
The provincial government has within its’ power to provide school boards with adequate funds and flexibility to make fiscally prudent decisions around facilities and governance that are in the best interest of children. However, in disregard to the recommendations of their own Select Standing Committee (two years in a row), and in dereliction of its own legal mandate, the government is refusing to provide predictable funding and safe, educationally appropriate facilities necessary to ensure that all children in BC, regardless of race, gender, economic background or ability, have the opportunity to meet their full potential.
PAN calls on the Minister of Education to stop "playing politics" and provide the "adequate, stable and sustainable funding" demanded for public education. It is, after all, his legal obligation and duty to do so under the BC School Act.
Yesterday was the final day for submissions. Thank you to the 110 responses we got to George Heyman's questions at our presentation. We tallied up the answers and submitted this response.
In summary, these are the presentations on education that we have been given or are publicly available. If you have another presentation to share, please let us know (firstname.lastname@example.org).
[Download a PDF of this letter.]
September 29, 2016
Vancouver Board of Education Trustees Vancouver School Board
1580 W. Broadway
Vancouver, BC V6J 5K8
The Parent Advocacy Network (PAN) would like to acknowledge the extensive work Trustees and staff have done thus far in the Proposed School Closure process; parents appreciate how overwhelming this situation is. However, after the September 27 release of details related to the Proposed School Closure Consultation process, several questions and concerns have come to light for which parents require clarification. Given the very tight timeline, we hope these concerns will be addressed as soon as possible so parents and community members will have a clearer understanding of the process, and so that the process has the intended outcome of allowing people to feel as though they have been adequately consulted.
1) PAN would like to understand why consultation meetings will not be held at the actual schools being considered for closure. Parents and community members understood that school-specific consultation meetings would take place at the affected schools – venues where affected families are most likely to feel comfortable at and live near. Proximity for some families will be crucial to their ability to attend. Most elementary school gymnasiums hold several hundred people, so it is clear that size of venue is not an issue. We respectfully request that trustees and staff give serious consideration to moving these consultations to the affected schools.
2) PAN also questions the choice of time for school-specific meetings. An early evening time is very difficult for parents, especially considering that most parents work outside the home. Parents cannot be expected to get home from work, pick up children from school or childcare, deal with after-school activities, and prepare dinner all before a 5PM meeting. This is especially true if they must travel outside their neighbourhood to an unfamiliar school in order to attend the meeting. We respectfully request that trustees and staff give thought to moving the start time to 6PM or 7PM for school-specific meetings.
3) Given statements made on September 26, PAN believes it is the VSB's intention to enable as many parents as possible to attend the consultations. With that in mind, for many families childcare will be an issue. Please confirm and make clear in all communications, if on-site childcare will be provided.
4) Of particular concern is the need for attendees to register beforehand to speak about their school. Many people will find this very intimidating and overly formal, and we strongly encourage staff and trustees to consider eliminating this requirement. It would seem very appropriate for attendees to have the opportunity to register on-site upon arrival, and there should be an open-mic opportunity for attendees to speak about issues or concerns that may come up for them over the course of the meeting.
5) We have heard from many parents who are confused and find it difficult to access clear information about the specifics of the consultation process; they believe they should have a specific person they can contact with questions. Who is in charge of the VSB Engagement communications, and will they be able to respond to questions and concerns in a timely manner? To whom should parents and community members direct questions and concerns prior to the meetings such as those addressed here?
6) As both schools closing and those receiving students will be affected greatly by any closure, we would ask the VSB to ensure that receiving schools have also been sent invitations to all consultation meetings. Their voices also need to be heard and, with respect, every effort should be made to ensure they too have all the information needed to actively participate in this consultation process. Many parents are unaware of the potential impacts of amalgamation on their school and should be informed if there is a possibility of losing utilized educational spaces or community programs.
7) We appreciate that translations of the consultation letters have been made available. Will translators be at the consultations to facilitate the participation of parents who do not speak fluent English?
8) We realize that this consultation process is going to be facilitated by a third party. A third-party summary cannot possibly substitute for hearing people’s very important concerns firsthand. We hope that all trustees will be present at all meetings so you can hear what people have to say. In addition, trustees should have the opportunity to pose any questions they may have directly to speakers. A strong show of interest by trustees will show everyone that VSB is just as concerned as the rest of us about the possibility of school closures.
We understand that this is a very busy, difficult, and stressful time for staff and trustees. It is also a very difficult time for families and community members. We hope we can all work together to get this information clarified and disseminated to everyone in a very timely fashion. We know that you understand the gravity of these decisions and that you are committed to providing a consultation process that is as fair, open, and accessible as possible.
Thank you for your prompt attention to these concerns.
The PAN Steering Committee
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