The Woman Behind the Vancouver School Board

Patti Bacchus is sitting in the headquarters of the Vancouver school board, near Granville and Broadway. This isn’t her office, this particular conference room—though she works five days and four nights a week as a board trustee, she doesn’t actually have an office here—but she’ll call it hers for the next hour or so. She’s just done a standup for CBC TV, out front where the flowerbeds are looking so pretty; up next is a photo shoot. Then a break, then a committee meeting that will go till heaven knows when. Her day started with a radio interview at 7 a.m. No wonder she’s talking about sleep.

A 48-year-old mother of two, UVic poli-sci grad, and lifelong Westsider (she’s a member of the Balfour Properties family), Bacchus says she’s been losing sleep for the better part of a year now, though it’s only recently that most people have noticed her budgetary battle with the ministry of education. None of the strife over threatened closures of mini schools and reductions of administrators’ hours and shrinking of libraries and (most controversially) cuts to strings programs is new. Televisions and tabloids have been blaring both sides of the debate for months now, culminating in the photo of Bacchus with the headline “BOARD SPANKED” on the cover of the Province and her call on BCTV for the minister’s resignation because of incompetence—“which is nothing I haven’t said before, only now people listen.”

The latest sortie in the running battle began last summer when Bacchus, six months into this first term as a trustee, sat down with Margaret MacDiarmid, herself new to her job as minister of education. Bacchus says it was quickly apparent things between the board and the ministry were going to be awkward. In August, the ministry wrote to say it was cancelling an expected $11 million; the board could pay any outstanding bills out of its surplus.

“Surplus”—such a deceptively simple word—has come to define a whole ideological battle around the delivery of education in this province. All public schools in B.C. receive their funding through taxation. Municipal governments collect money, the province piggybanks it, school boards decide how to spend it. During Christy Clark’s reign as education minister, in 2002, schools went from equal-slices funding to per-pupil funding: the more students at your school, the more money you got. Throw in special-needs kids—autism, second language, behaviour issues—and your pot swells. Lose kids (and Vancouver, like all of Canada, is in the midst of a demographic trough for school-age kids), and your revenue goes down. Each kid brings an average of $8,000 into a school, though that child actually costs the system less because of economies of scale. Pull 100 kids out, however, and you’re down the full $80,000.

So provincial government funding is being cut back across the province (with the exception of Surrey, where enrollment has grown 14 percent in the last decade) at the same time that schools find the cost of education skyrocketing. Between renegotiated salaries and special costs—from the HST to full-day kindergarten—the ministry has saddled Vancouver schools with an unbudgeted $8.71 million. Yet the ministry still requires balanced budgets (or trustees get fired). And the ministry points to an increase in funding—MacDiarmid told the Legislature that the province is funding students at a “historic high.” Clearly, Vancouver cannot be immune from the school closures and staff reductions plaguing districts across B.C.

 MacDiarmid looked at Vancouver’s budget in May and saw a $16.7 million surplus; Bacchus looked in June and saw $110,000. “If we translate this to personal finances,” Bacchus wrote the ministry, “the operating fund balance at June 30 would be the equivalent of checking a bank balance in the days before bills are due or a mortgage payment is scheduled to come out. It shows money in the account, but the full amount is not available to be spent.”

Caught in the middle of this war are the students wondering what school will look like come fall, after the Vancouver school board has instituted cuts (and not just Vancouver: North Vancouver has closed three schools; Richmond cut 94 jobs). Caught, too, are the parents, teachers, social workers, and others who orbit these kids. And at the heart of it all is Bacchus herself, who’s paid $26,000 a year to visit schools, run board meetings (which she does with CEO zeal), participate in five standing committees, petition the government, listen to delegations beg for funding, and break the news to all those Grade 4 violists that Mrs. So-and-So won’t be coming back.

Bacchus started her term on a roll, garnering 64,451 votes—the most after Gregor Robertson and Raymond Louie, and ahead of every parks board commissioner and trustee. She’s not sure where to credit her success, except she’s been an active parent and advocate since her kids (now 14 and 16) entered the system and she was told that if her son needed special resources, she’d have to figure out how to elbow him ahead of someone else’s. “I thought, ‘That’s not right. Okay, I’ll try to advocate for everyone.’ ” She did have some chops: in the late 1980s she’d worked as a community-news reporter covering school-board meetings in Richmond; after she quit the paper, she joined the board as communications manager.

She’s leaning on that PR experience these days, with the province and board engaged in a game of political brinksmanship. MacDiarmid appointed comptroller-general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland to find cost savings where the VSB cannot. “The Vancouver board of education is either unable or unwilling to manage its resources to protect the interests of students,” MacDiarmid said, “and we are interpreting this as an indication that this board needs extra help.”

Bacchus, seen as the most outspoken of the Vision Vancouverites, believes that the audit—which is being conducted only in Vancouver—is politically motivated: “This is for speaking out,” she told reporters the day of the announcement. If Wenezenki-Yolland—with her budget of $200,000 and staff of 10—can find savings, says Bacchus, she’ll be delighted. She fears, though, that the battle may be alienating parents with kids in public school. “I lie there at night,” she says, “and I worry: What if all this work is only encouraging parents to leave the system? What if I’m just making it worse?”