No money for schools? Then conduct a $25,000 poll!

Ipsos-Reid landed the $25,000 VSB School Survey contract to poll 18-34 year olds

Where to begin.

In my opinion Vancouver’s public education has never been more poorly governed in its history. This board have no management skills, no tact when it comes to dealing with senior levels of government, and they have no ideas to help make schools run more efficiently in the face of declining enrolment.

The Vision/COPE Trustees and local NDP MLAs have played the emotions of Vancouver parents like a fiddle for months. I’ve watched as formerly apolitical parents have become mobilized by the offices of NDP MLAs, who pretend to care about public education while offering not one original idea on how to make our system work better.

To add to this political theatre is perhaps the most callous idea put forward by the Vision/COPE school trustees yet. In the face of a multi-million dollar debt load and no plan to create savings for schools, they have approved a $25,000 expenditure for a poll (see a full copy of that poll here) that put simply does nothing for education, and everything for the political prospects of Vision Vancouver and COPE.

The NPA School trustees Ken Denike & Carol Gibson, along with new NPA Trustee candidate Sophia Woo sent out a joint press release on Tuesday about their alarm and disappointment at this self-serving political expense by the board. Denike and Gibson commented about the fact that the poll targeted 18-34 year olds, who are well outside of the demographic for most stakeholders. Parents today are having children between the ages of 30-39 on average, putting most parents with kids in Vancouver schools at 35+.

Sophia Woo stated that it was clearly a "political" poll, and that the Board should call it off. Indeed the questions reflect the desperation of Vision Vancouver as they drop in public opinion polls. Are there questions that will help the quality of Vancouver’s education? No. Is there a lot of demographic and geographic info being sought, and leading questions? You bet.

By spending less than $25,000, VSB rules allow the Board to make this expense without a vote of approval by Trustees. Denike seems to think that it was the limit set by the VSB that determined how much the board would spend on the poll. Indeed, the more money you spend on a poll, the larger the sample size you can afford.

Neither Denike nor Gibson knew that a public opinion poll was a part of the Board's consultation budget. And both of them were horrified to learn only yesterday, after the "final" draft of the poll questions had been completed, that the board would spend $25,000 on it!

Feeling that she entirely cut out of the process by the Vision board, Gibson contacted Chair Patti Bacchus by email. It was a testy exchange that Gibson provided me some samples of. Gibson asks Chair Bacchus about the poll last Monday…

Patti I do not recall the issue of such a survey coming before the board as a separate item, neither do I recall discussion of cost to the district. I assume that this cost will be itemized within the school closure process budget to permit stakeholders to evaluate whether the survey and its results add value to the consultation process or are merely an expensive way politically to determine the approval rating for COPE/VISION in an election year. Carol Gibson

Fair comment, or so you would think. Gibson is a fellow Trustee, and should be permitted to know what money is being spent at the Board’s discretion. Gibson would also like to know how the data will be used to improve education, given the slant of the questions.

Bacchus shrugged off Gibson’s concerns, saying that the poll was a part of the larger consultation budget, and that the board needs to hear from people outside of the school closure meetings. Then Bacchus further suggested that Gibson’s alarm about the poll was as a result of her mental health, asking her to take care of herself and mind the stresses of the job…

I know this is an incredibly challenging process for all trustees and may I respectfully advise that our students and parents deserve our full focus and effort to reach the best decisions possible in this situation. That will be best served if we can focus on the difficult task at hand, using the best information and feedback was can access, instead of making highly inappropriate and diversionary political accusations about decisions that have been previously discussed and approved by the board.

I hope you’re taking care of yourself Carol. I understand you may be tired and stressed — I’m sure we all are. So let’s focus on what’s best for our students and schools and doing the best we can with this challenging situation.

Patti Bacchus

Nice to know that Patti, doing her best Nurse Ratched impersonation, is so concerned for Carol’s health. Gibson reacted calmly and to the point in response to Bacchus’ insulting and arrogant remarks.

Patti, Thank you for your concern. I am neither tired nor stressed.

…If the Board is committing public funding to conduct such a survey, it is within the fiduciary responsibility of the Board as a whole to ensure that the results of such a survey are useful, objective, reliable, and most critically free of any perceived political bias.

A full-page ad in today's 24 Hours newspaper promoting private education. Here's an idea. Why not have the Minister of Education, all school trustees, key leadership from the VSB and the BCTF all attend the Private School Expo later this month? Perhaps they'll learn a few things about marketing public schools better, and how to improve services? – click for larger

The polling questions are so transparently political, I’m absolutely amazed that VSB Superintendent Steve Cardwell would not be raising hell on this. Cardwell, who was hired by the current board, has yet to publicly prove his ability to stand up to Vision/COPE’s politics. He must be aware that with a year left and the polls collapsing for Vision, that he must do his best to stand free of Board politics.

The poll, aimed at those both above and below the age of 35 (Vision’s base voters are largely under 35) asks questions like:

  • How would you rate the performance of the Vancouver school board?

How about asking "what are your perceptions of Vancouver’s public education?"

Then the survey goes on to ask…

  • Have you heard anything about budgetary issues with the School Board?

Then the poll taker is required to explain school funding and the Province’s part in it, clearly a tactic to create higher political awareness in the public. Since you’re out there spending the Board does not have, why not ask these questions instead?

  • Are you satisfied with your child’s schooling in Vancouver?
  • What currently unavailable programs do you think your child’s school would benefit from?
  • Have you considered enrolling your child in private/independent schools? Or, is your child currently enrolled in private school? If so, why have you chosen private over public education?
  • Is daycare important to you?
  • What do we need in our schools and,
  • What can we lose in our schools?

Here are a few questions that would enable our leadership at the VSB to craft a system for the 21st Century. It would challenge all stakeholders, including the recalcitrant Teacher's Federation, to look at ways to improve the system. Answers to these questions will enable us to see current and future needs. Instead we're trying to convince ourselves that "special programs" will help already moribund school settings to attract students.

But nobody asks the question, where are those kids going to come from? if you put in a special arts or language program in one school, that will just draw away kids from already under-enrolled schools.

The questions in the $25,000 Vision poll are clearly aimed at doing political profiling. They ask for postal codes, ages, incomes, levels of awareness on the VSB itself and levels of satisfaction. None of this info will help education, but it will sure help out Vision Vancouver’s election war room.

What we have is a situation where the lack of leadership is setting our school system back in Vancouver. This poll is so crass and unnecessary that Vision and COPE should be ashamed of themselves. Don’t expect them to be apologizing anytime soon though, folks.


The Vancouver Sun‘s Pete McMartin is also trying to understanding the problems within our school system. You can read his latest column on this topic here.

- post by Mike

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