From left: (back row) Jane Martin

From left: (back row) Jane Martin

Fired trustees rally support for by-election

Lake Cowichan town council decides after much discussion to support fired school board trustees in the bid for by-election.

From Sept. 24 to the 28, Lake Cowichan mayor and council will be attending the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria.

Besides bringing forward issues that effect the Town of Lake Cowichan, mayor and council will be bringing forward a special resolution at the request of the fired School District 79 board members.

At the regular town meeting that took place on Sept. 18, Duncan Brown, along with Eden Haythornthwaite, Hannah Seymour, Jane Martin, Hazel Beech, Diana Gunderson, and former mayor Don Gordon, presented council with two requests.

“One is a simple matter, and the other is a little bit more involved,” said Brown. “I believe they both speak to the fundamental tenets of democracy.”

The first was a request for council to write a letter to education minister, Don McRae, asking for a by-election for a school board hearing in the Cowichan Valley.

“Secondly, I would like to ask council to bring forward an emergent resolution to the upcoming UBCM to call on the provincial government to call a by-election for the school trustees in Cowichan.”

After providing council with a history of events leading up to the Cowichan School Board being fired on July 1, Brown expressed the ex-boards stance that by not calling a by-election, the education minister is denying Cowichan Valley residents their right to vote.

Brown explained that after being elected the board engaged in a lengthy budget process after facing cuts of $2.4 million to fund the same services and programs as the year before.

“As we were going through that process, we balanced the budget by laying off 17.5 teachers and making cuts in legal fees,” said Brown.

At this point, the board built in a restorative piece into the budget of approximately $3.7 million.

“I think it’s important to realize that these programs and services were cut in the last three years,” said Brown. “And they are only a portion of the $11.4 million that has been cut over the last 11 years. They were put back in because they were seen as critical to our community and to our partner groups and they addressed, I would say, the bulk of the services and programs for our most vulnerable learners.”

The board says they requested to meet with George Abbott, the then education minister, as well as other government officials numerous times, but were consistently denied.

“Were you told that if you put the budget forward that you were going to be fired, in other words, did you know that at that point you would be terminated?” asked Coun. Day at the Sept. 17 meeting.

“We were certainly under no illusions,” said Brown. “We were fully aware that the consequence could have been dismissal.”

“I truly believed that we would have an opportunity to sit with the minister,” added Haythornthwaite. “When we brought the restoration budget forward, in many ways it was an appeal of our allocation. We were certain that he [Mr. Abbott] would want to sit with us, and we were by no means interested in drawing a line in the sand and sticking. We were hoping that it would change the direction of funding. That if we could have achieved any sort of advancement on what was happening to our district, we would certainly have considered it, but we never got the opportunity.”

After some discussion as to whether to table the request until the Oct. 2 town meeting, council decided that because of the urgency of the matter and the fact that the request hinged on the time frame of the UBCM convention, the table decided to waive regular delegation procedure and support both the writing of the letter, and the emergent resolution.

The delegates have also  approached other municipalities in the Cowichan Valley, as well as provincially elected officials and organizations on Vancouver Island.

“You are the first council we come to, but we have been to all the bands within our district and they have passed all band council resolutions supporting a by-election and the democratically elected board, as well as the restoration budget,” said Seymour.

She added that the Assembly of First Nations has also unanimously voted to support the board, its budget, and its push for a by-election.

Chuck Seymour, a member of the Hwulmuhw Mustimuhw Education Council, says that council has sent a letter supporting a by-election because they will not deal with the appointed trustee.

“He is not duly elected and he cannot deal with First Nation’s issues in good faith,” said Seymour.

He says that the council tries to ensure that the voices of First Nations in Lake Cowichan are heard when it comes to allocating funds in the district. He worries that with the current approved budget many programs that directly affect First Nations youth will be cut.

The programs include Hul’qumi’num language classes and funding for counsellors.

Seymour says a cut in student counsellors will contribute to an already high rate of First Nations students who are graduating without the tools they need to pursue post secondary education, tools such as Grade 11 and 12 English and math courses.

Bill Routely, MLA for the Cowichan Valley, has also put in his support for a by-election by sending his own letter to Min. McRae.

“The School Act recognizes that the leadership of our schools is best placed in the hands of British Columbians as exercised through their right to elect local school trustees,” states Routley in the letter. “Our school district at present does not have a single elected school board trustee. Now that your ministry has approved a budget for our school district, it is time for the responsibility of our children’s education to be placed once again in the hands of elected trustees.”

Ian Morrison, CVRD Area F director, also supports a by-election.

“I believe the fine people of the Cowichan Valley expect basic concepts of democracy to apply equally and fairly across all levels of government in which leaders in our community are elected to office. It is commonly expected when a elected position becomes vacant, for whatever reason, that within a reasonable time a bye-election will be held to fill the vacancy. This is true of elected officials at the federal, provincial, municipal, and I believe, at the school district level as well,” said Morrison.

Morrison adds that he believes that regardless of the reasons behind the current lack of a complete board, a by-election should be called within six months of any vacancy of a board occurring.

“If the Provincial Government has their way, the Cowichan Valley will have an unaccountable bureaucrat making decisions that effect our communities, without the people’s ability to judge the merit of those decisions in the next regularly scheduled election in almost two and a half years from today,” said Morrison. “Right or wrong, good or bad, right or left, it should not be another elected official at the Province who decides. The correct solution would be the good and wise voters of the CowichanValley casting their vote in a bye-election.”