This is the first of five installments of our “Top Stories of 2010” countdown. None of these stories would have unfolded or seen the light of day in the absence of community organizing and grassroots activism. The take-home-message of 2010, it seems, is that activism can be effective while defining who we are.
In 2010, BC Liberal Education Minister Margaret MacDiairmid continued Gordon Campbell’s attrition policy aimed at undermining pubic education. Underfunding rocked school districts across the province. Parents organized against the cuts, and their campaign forced MacDiarmid to at least temporarily reverse cuts to the Annual Facilities Grant.
While many elected school trustees across the province timidly implemented the cuts, the Vancouver School Board (VSB), which had a $17M funding shortfall, fought back. On April 4th, VSB Chair Patti Bacchus suggested that MacDiarmid resign for denying the funding crisis. On April 10th, MacDiarmid asked the Comptroller General to “review” VSB finances. The VSB found out about the review through the media, for which MacDiarmid had to apologize. Bacchus emphasized that the real issue – provincial underfunding – was excluded from the scope of the review.
There was speculation that MacDiarmid and the BC Liberals would try to “fire” VSB trustees or even abolish elected school boards, but again Bacchus called their draconian bluff.
The Comptroller General’s report, released on June 10, argued that the VSB’s funding shortfall was $12M, not $17M. MacDiarmid directed the VSB to submit a “balanced” budget within the week. In defiance, on June 17 the VSB re-filed their April budget largely unchanged.
After years of attrition, more funding for programs and staff were needed, not less. The only option was to consider school closures, so in June the VSB launched a public consultation on possible school closures. The final consultation report, released on Dec 5 2010, showed that most parents found closing schools preferable to cutting programs and staff (48% to 32%), but parents also found the price of closing schools too high (55% against closures v. 37% in favour). Parents understood that the real problem was provincial underfunding of public schools (62% said more Provincial funding was needed v. 24% said current funding was adequate).
Throughout this saga, anti-democracy commentators criticized Patti Bacchus for “advocating” for public education (even Vaughn Palmer argued against consultation and advocacy). But Bacchus was elected on a platform to do just that. If the people of Vancouver wanted their school trustees to implement irresponsible cuts without consulting those affected and without taking principled stands, they would have elected lamp-posts or, worse, BC Liberals. Credit where credit is due: Bacchus showed by example the importance of education, grassroots organizing, and, not least, courage in the face of intimidating times for public education.
Image from Stop BC Education Cuts! facebook group.