By Kimball Cariou
Three years ago, after years of threats, the B.C. Liberal government fired the entire Vancouver School Board just as the trustees were about to meet to fulfill their legal requirement to adopt a balanced budget for the 2016-17 school term. The real reason for the firing was that for most of the years since the Liberals took office in 2001, the VSB had been led by a progressive majority which regularly spoke out against provincial funding cuts.
On this occasion, former Premier Christy Clark, well known for her efforts to weaken the public education system in favour of stronger support for elite private and religious schools, immediately appointed a single trustee to run the entire Vancouver district, with over 50,000 students and more than 6,000 teaching and non-enrolling staff in about 120 schools. Clark’s dream of gutting public education came to an end a year later, in the wake of a Supreme Court decision ruling that her government had to restore the collective bargaining rights illegally taken from teachers many years ago, and then her defeat in the May 2017 provincial election.
Since then, the battle continues to rage. NDP Premier John Horgan’s Education Minister, the “radical” Rob Fleming, risks forcing a strike by teachers next September, as he tries to impose concessions on the BC Teachers Federation. The excuse is much the same as before: it would cost the taxpayers too much to bring BC teachers salaries and working conditions up to the levels of other provinces. And the NDP refuses to help pay for higher spending on schools, hospitals and social services by rolling back the massive tax cuts granted to the rich and the corporate sector by the Liberals back in 2001.
This brings us to the latest revelations by former VSB Chair Patti Bacchus, now a freelance reporter on public education issues. In her latest column in the weekly Georgia Straight, Bacchus exposes how the Liberals tried to force the District to sell off a valuable income-generating property for the benefit of big-time political donors.
The property in question is the Kingsgate Mall, a somewhat quirky set of shops and services located at Broadway and Kingsway. The property has been owned by the Board for over a century, and the mall brings in sizable revenue, helping to maintain stable funding for staff and maintenance costs. As Vancouver’s real estate bubble inflated over the last twenty years, provincial politicians were quick with “helpful” suggestions that the Board could ease its budget problems by selling the property to developers. Of course, such a sale would lead to reduced provincial funding for Vancouver schools, leaving students, teachers and other staff no better off than before.
Proof of public suspicions along these lines has now been confirmed by a news story on the B.C. Liberals’ push to sell off over $1 billion worth public lands and properties. Vancouver Sun reporter Lori Culbert’s recent series on the subject included the kind of detailed research rarely seen in today’s corporate dailies.
As Bacchus summarizes, the Liberals sold 164 “surplus” properties from 2013 to 2017 under a program called the Release of Assets for Economic Generation, or RAEG. The sales included health centres, public-school sites, agricultural lands, and other “surplus” properties.
For many years, the Liberals put intense pressure on the VSB to sell school lands to private interests. But to their eternal credit, the COPE and Vision majorities on most of the Boards during this time refused to close schools in the lower-income east side.
Bacchus writes, “When we, as school trustees, advocated for better operating funding to support students, the government’s response was to tell us to close schools and sell lands. When we refused and called them out for underfunding public education, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring “special advisors”… to write expensive reports telling us (if) you sell prime city real estate you get money.
“Selling VSB property is a foolhardy and shortsighted idea. Vancouver isn’t some dying mill town with a dwindling population. It’s a growing, vibrant city that will increase in population and density. Public lands will be increasingly precious, particularly large, intact sites. They will also become scarce and unaffordable. If we don’t hang on to the ones we have, they’ll be gone forever. Especially if they’re sold to private developers.”
Then comes the kicker. In 2016, when the VSB faced another round of crushing budget cuts, former Education Minister Mike Bernier proposed the VSB sell Kingsgate to partially cover the shortfall. The provincial School Act forbids using proceeds from land sales to fund operating budgets, but Bernier told the Board the law didn’t matter.
Culbert’s research found that the firm operating the mall, Beedie Development, donated $668,000 to the Liberals between 2005 and 2018. Beedie would have made a killing if it had been allowed to make the purchase, as the company did in several other cases. \
The full story is worth reading at the Straight website. Essentially, Bernier was furious when the Board refused, since selling capital assets to pay operating costs was a shortsighted and foolhardy move in a real-estate market like Vancouver’s. At the time, the Kingsgate site was assessed at $79 million; today, the assessment is $148 million, meaning that the Board saved the public $69 million.
It’s not often that the utter and total subservience of right-wing politicians to their corporate backers is so completely exposed. If there was any real justice, Christy Clark and Mike Bernier would be facing corruption charges. Instead, the Liberals and their friends got away with hundreds of similar swindles. We can only hope voters never let their party win another majority in the BC Legislature.