British Columbia

Vancouver School Board puts school closures on hold

The acting superintendent of the Vancouver School Board recommended the move, as WorkSafeBC investigates "serious allegations of a toxic work environment."

11 schools on the chopping block, but many senior staff on leave as controversy swirls

The proposed closure of up to 11 schools in Vancouver has been put on hold.

The Vancouver School Board voted to suspend the public process of closing schools in the district, as WorkSafeBC investigates "serious allegations of a toxic work environment."

The acting superintendent of the VSB, Steve Cardwell, made the recommendation at Monday night's school board meeting. 

It comes after a week in which multiple senior staff went on medical leave, and Cardwell was appointed to the superintendent job he held from 2010 to 2014.  

'Toxic work environment'

WorkSafeBC is investigating, telling CBC it is "aware of a letter from the B.C. School Superintendents Association regarding the Vancouver School Board." 

"WorkSafeBC will be proceeding with an investigation under the authority of the Workers Compensation Act," said spokeswoman Trish Knight Chernecki in a statement. 

But Vancouver School Board chair Mike Lombardi downplayed the issue at Monday's meeting, saying "we have a very stable situation here."

However, the provincial government is monitoring the situation.

"The ministry received a letter from the BC School Superintendents Association containing serious allegations of a toxic work environment between the elected Vancouver School Board and its staff," said Education Minister Mike Bernier in a statement.

"We have passed the BCSSA's concerns about the welfare and the lack of a sense of safety of their members working at the VSB on to WorkSafeBC because of [its] jurisdiction regarding bullying and harassment in the workplace."

Nobody with the Vancouver School Board would comment on the nature of the allegations. 

Reversal on closure decision

The VSB voted on September 26 to hold a series of public consultations before deciding which of the following 11 schools it might close at the end of the year:

  • Champlain Heights Annex
  • McBride Annex
  • Queen Elizabeth Annex
  • Tecumseh Annex
  • Admiral Seymour Elementary
  • Dr. A.R. Lord Elementary
  • Graham D. Bruce Elementary
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary
  • Queen Alexandra Elementary
  • Sir Guy Carleton Elementary
  • Gladstone Secondary

However, the B.C. government recently announced a relaxation of a requirement schools be at 95 per cent capacity in order to receive funding for new investments.

The VSB has said the old government guideline was the primary reason it was forced to consider closing schools. 

Now, the school board says no schools will be closed until June 30, 2017 at the earliest.

"The closure process was working on very tight timelines and the minister's announcement about the removal of the 95 per cent requirement came too late to allow detailed consideration of the implications," said Lombardi in a statement following the meeting. 

Political fingerpointing

The school trustees were split on Cardwell's recommendation, with NPA members abstaining. 

"We didn't get to where we are lightly folks and I feel that we are throwing out months and months of work," said Penny Noble, one of three trustees. 

Fraser Ballantyne, an NPA trustee who was chair in 2015, claimed they were left out of talks about what was going to be proposed.

"It is extremely disturbing that a number of trustees have obviously been discussing a number of things prior to this meeting," he said. 

"To have someone move a motion without even just to start the conversation and support it is indicative there's been some preconceived notions about what this meeting was going to be doing."

Current chair Lombardi expressed confidence in the process, however.

"We're moving forward, we have a plan," he said, adding that he wasn't worried in a loss in confidence. 

"We're working our way through this."