A tale of two school boards: One fiery, one fired

apple-on-fireOne of my fondest political memories is the night when results came in for the by-election of a brand new Vancouver School Board in 1986.

Two years earlier, in 1984, COPE (Coalition of Progressive Electors) had won a bare majority on the school board, electing five of the nine trustees. They had campaigned very heavily on a no-cuts budget.

The Socreds were in power provincially, and the B.C. government had been under-funding the Vancouver School Board for years. (Does this sound familiar?) But the big difference between then and now is the way in which progressive forces in Vancouver responded in the ’80s to the prevailing political climate with a right-wing government.

COPE made very clear throughout the 1984 campaign that they simply would not consider passing anything but a needs budget — a budget that addresses needs, not necessarily a balanced budget — even if this meant passing a deficit budget. Having been elected on this very firm, some might say fiery platform, they took office in January 1985 with a clear mandate to stand up for Vancouver’s students. The gloves came off!

If memory serves me correctly, it was May 1985 when the then-education minister issued an ultimatum — either implement the cuts necessary to balance the budget or be fired. The COPE school trustees, having built a very strong base of support within the education community throughout all of Vancouver, stood firm. The community stood with them. There would be no more cuts even if it meant being fired.

A line in the sand had been drawn. It was not a battle between the provincial education minister and a few lonely, isolated school trustees, but rather a battle between an isolated and lonely minister of education and a school board that was inspiring the community with its daring refusal to implement cuts.

In early 1986, the minister fired the entire school board and appointed a trustee. Within hours, a large demonstration materialized in front of the VSB offices at 10th and Granville. The individual appointed by the minister to administer the school board was challenged every step of the way. If he held a public meeting to get input on an issue, hundreds showed up to denounce him.

Within a matter of months, the appointed trustee found it was not possible to balance the budget without making very severe cuts to an already extremely lean budget, and that the cuts required would be draconian. The minister had no choice but to call a by-election to re-elect the school board.

In those days there were only two municipal parties — COPE and the NPA (Non-Partisan Association). Throughout the by-election, the NPA candidates had very little to offer the electorate. They had not stood up for education. On the other hand, the COPE candidates could point with pride to their unwillingness to kowtow to provincial government dictates.

So now lets get back to where I started this blog — the night of the by-election.

The auditorium where COPE supporters gathered was filled with electricity! What would the outcome be? Would COPE manage to re-elect a majority, five of the nine school trustees? Or would the NPA narrative — “elect us, we’re the only responsible option” — triumph?

The results began to trickle in. One COPE trustee was elected for sure: Dr. Pauline Weinstein, the former chair of the school board. Then a second COPE candidate was declared elected, then a third, and a fourth. Then a fifth, and we had our majority. But it did not stop there! A sixth. Then a seventh. An eighth. Were we all dreaming? Had the media made some sort of mistake in relaying the results? And then it happened — our ninth candidate was elected. It would be a shutout! Nine out of nine!

Not one stay-the-course, do-as-we-are-told trustee was elected. It was an utter vindication of the belief that the left will go nowhere if it simply attempts to be a kinder, gentler version of the right. It must take a firm stand and be unwavering in its commitment to stand up for what is morally good and justified.

Contrast all of the above with what has happened in the last few days. The education minister fires the Vancouver School Board. Hardly a peep of criticism from the public. No spontaneous rally in support of education anywhere. And all of this because the so-called progressives on the VSB had utterly failed to build a partnership between the elected and the community.

In fact, up until just days ago, the school board was intent on closing numerous schools. Even worse, on the very day the school trustees were fired, the chair announced that the school board would pass a balanced budget. This after claiming for almost a year that to pass a balanced budget would mean implementing unacceptably deep cuts. No wonder there is little if any public support for the fired trustees!

So what’s the takeaway? The public is more than willing to stand with progressive politicians if they are willing to stand up for the public.

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