B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier left some important things out of his year-end wrap up

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[ELECTION 2017. For instance, the BCTF's landmark supreme court win was the biggest education news in BC — but Bernier didn't mention that. Or the fact that he fired two democratically elected school boards, or the list of school closures, or the list of repairs not done, or his gift of public funds to private schools. *RON*]

Patti Bacchus, Vancouver Observer, 28 December 2016

B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier at the Journée de la francophonie on March 15, 2016. Photo courtesy Prov of B.C. Flickr page.
B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier is touting 2016 as “a banner” year for British Columbia’s students and education system in an opinion-editorial out this week.

While Bernier highlights capital investments, B.C. students’ impressive showing in the recent PISA results and the new provincial curriculum, he leaves out the year’s biggest education news.

That was, of course, the massive win for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) at the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in November that found the B.C. government’s 2002 legislation that stripped the teachers’ contract to be unconstitutional. That landmark decision will likely result in hundreds more teachers being hired for B.C.’s public schools, including more specialist teachers.

As I wrote in November, the Vancouver School Board alone could need over 200 new teachers to come anywhere close to complying with the contract language that was in place prior to the 2002 legislation.

That old language is the basis for ongoing talks between the B.C. government and the BCTF. I doubt the BCTF is in any mood to make significant concessions after its members suffered through 14 years of larger class sizes with more students with special needs than they would have under their old contracts.

The SCC's surprisingly quick decision came after years of legal battles that made their way through the B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeal.

Bernier’s wrap up also omits his firing of two democratically elected school boards — leaving citizens in the North Okanagan-Shuswap school district and Vancouver without elected trustees.

He replaced both fired boards with appointed administrators — Mike Mackay for North-Okanagan Shuswap and Dianne Turner for Vancouver, both former Superintendents of Schools.

School closures — those that went ahead and those that didn’t — also made a lot of headlines in 2016 although Bernier skipped over those too in his year-end op-ed.

After what was described as a “long and bitter” fight over closing Osoyoos Secondary School — the only high school in the town — to save money, the local school board got an 11th-hour reprieve with some last-minute government funding in late June and reversed its difficult decision.

Shortly after, the school trustee representing Osoyoos resigned and was replaced after a controversial by-election.

Richmond and Vancouver school boards also spent the spring of 2016 considering several school closures to meet Bernier’s demand that they have a plan to get to 95 per cent capacity utilization of school space to continue to receive seismic upgrade funding — until his sudden about face on September 21.

After months of emotional public meetings, rallies, petitions, email campaigns, both districts announced they were suspending further school closure discussions in early October.

And it’s a good thing they did as they’ll likely need a lot more school space due to that SCC ruling that will likely result in lower average class sizes, meaning districts will need more classrooms.

Bernier's about-face on the 95 per cent capacity requirement wasn’t his only 2016 flip-flop.

As Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer’s “Backdown Bernier's from old school of higher yearnings” column noted, in late May government gave back some of what they took away from school districts in previous “administrative savings”, that Premier Christy Clark famously called “low-hanging fruit”.

And it was indeed a banner year for some expensive private schools, although Bernier left that tidbit out of his year-end wrap up as well.

His $1million gift of public funds to 14 private schools that serve students with special needs was panned by parents who rightly pointed out that the ministry’s own policy says that there should be equitable access to education for all students, including those with special needs.

That extra money means some private schools that already receive a portion of the per-student funding public school along with special education supplemental grants are now eligible for even more taxpayer dollars.

They can add that to tuition fees which are often north of $20,000 a year. Given the cuts public school boards have had to make to balance their underfunded budgets and how difficult it can be to access special education support in public schools, it’s no wonder Bernier left that out of his year-end wrap up.

He took away a few things too in 2016.

Ask the students, parents and staff at Victoria’s Shoreline Community Middle School. They were preparing for a temporary move out of the school at the end of June so long-awaited seismic upgrades could get underway.

Bernier changed his mind and pulled the plug in May, leaving a lot of disappointed a frustrated people.

Why? Apparently not enough families want to send their kids to a school with a high-seismic risk rating, which means it wasn’t full enough for Bernier to consider it a priority for upgrading. So months and months of planning and preparation were tossed aside and 250 lives will be at risk indefinitely. Shame on you, Mike Bernier.

And despite sending out a ridiculous number of news releases in 2016 announcing funds for non-newsworthy school maintenance work, Bernier also didn't mention a project that was actually big news for Brentwood Bay’s Bayside Middle School – it’s leaky roof is getting fixed.

Why, you may ask, is a roof repair newsworthy? In this case it really was a big deal – the roof’s been leaking since 1992. That’s not a typo. Students and parents had to campaign with petitions and signs to finally convince government to do the job properly.

And in what should be a cautionary tale for government that will likely be ignored, what started out as a smallish leak led to damage that will cost over $7 million to repair. (No, I’m not making this up.)

As any responsible and experienced home owner or property manager knows — water causes nasty and expensive damage and leaks left un-repaired are far more expensive to fix than those dealt with promptly. It shouldn’t take an election coming to do the sensible thing.

Like Bernier, I hope for exciting things to come for the education system in 2017.

For me that means a speedy agreement on restoring class size and composition terms to teachers’ contracts and getting additional staffing into schools quickly.

It means predictable, stable and adequate funding that moves B.C. from being Canada’s second-lowest in per-student funding to among the best.

It means truly equitable access to quality education for all students, regardless of their needs.

It means teachers who are enabled and empowered to do their very best by having optimal working conditions with class sizes and composition that allow them to give each student the time and attention they need.

It means every school is seismically safe, well equipped, heated on cold days, clean, bright, with well-stocked libraries staffed by qualified teacher librarians. It means all school cultures are safe and welcoming and students have timely access to counsellors and any other supports they need to be able to thrive at school.

It means parents don’t feel pressured to fill funding gaps through additional fees and fundraising. It means hungry students are greeted with a healthy breakfast and provided with a nutritious lunch and clean water flows from drinking fountains.

It means all primary and elementary schools have safe and stimulating playgrounds. An exciting year would certainly mean every intermediate and high-school student has access to specialized instruction in music and given the opportunity to learn to play an instrument.

In my version of an exciting year, new initiatives like the government-prescribed curriculum and coding instruction would be accompanied by funding to fully support their implementation.

It would also mean that adults who need to upgrade their high school credits to access post-secondary programs could do so without facing hefty fees.

It would also mean every Vancouver elementary student could attend a vibrant, safe neighbourhood school within walking distance from home. And those schools would offer a wide range of engaging learning opportunities to ensure every student’s learning needs are met. What a year that would be.

All the best for 2017.


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