Minister fires Cowichan School Board

The announcement came on July 1, which came as a bit of a shock to five of the members of the board who pushed for a deficit budget

After over a month of rallies, support from other school board trustees, unions, and other groups, as well as trying to get a meeting with the Minister of Education, George Abbott, the Cowichan Valley School Board has been fired.

Mike McKay, superintendent of the Surrey School District, has been appointed as the official trustee for School District 79.

The announcement came on Sunday, July 1, which came as a bit of a shock to the five of the nine members of the board who had pushed for a deficit budget, calling for an additional $3.7 million to restore programs and services lost over the last three years.

“We got an email message on Canada Day that was sent to Eden (Haythornthwaite) and CC’d to us, the rest of the trustees, saying that we’d been relieved of our duties. I was pretty shocked that it came on Canada Day rather than on the Tuesday like I had expected,” said Duncan Brown, one of the school board trustees.

During a teleconference which took place on July 1, Abbott stated that he is aware that sometimes boards have tough decisions to make when it comes to funding priorities. However, he wasn’t backing down.

“The responsibility of every school district in the province, all 60 of them, is to submit a balanced budget to us by June 30 at the very latest. Fifty-nine of the 60 school districts, well in advance of June 30, submitted balanced budgets to us and we are pleased by that,” said Abbott.

It is expected that McKay will adopt the balanced budget which was recommended to the board by the superintendent secretary-treasurer in May.

“So, what will occur here, in the immediate days ahead, is that balanced budget will be submitted to the official trustee, Mike McKay, who will accept it as effectively the trustee representing what was the Board of Education, so we will move very quickly to a balanced budget for that district,” said Abbott.

“We will certainly consider the legal challenge,” said Brown. “And where the legal challenge says that the balanced budget doesn’t have any more weight in the School Act than supplying a quality education. They (the lawyers) believe that they have grounds to challenge the fact that we weren’t legally dismissed.”

“We are going to continue to campaign over the summer to a) be reinstated, or b) have a bi-election,” added Brown.

“I’m entirely comfortable that we are operating within the bounds of the School Act here in dismissing this board. So unless they can provide a compelling argument to a court, I am entirely comfortable that we will be sustained in our position,” said Abbott when questioned about possible legal action.

Brown says that he and the other five who voted for the restorative budget are frustrated about two things.

“The refusal of Mr. Abbott to even talk to us, to meet with us,” is the main frustration Brown highlighted. He says the board did meet with the ministry, but they were told there was nothing these representatives could do to help them.

“I guess the other biggest frustration that I have had through this is how the picture is being painted that we are alone in this, that it’s not districts throughout the province who have exactly the same funding problems. They’ve chosen to balance the budget of the needs of the kids, and really that’s what’s happening; they’ve made a choice to balance the budget and cut programs and services.”

The other four trustees who voted against the restorative budget have a different point of view.

Cathy Schmidt is one of those trustees, and she says that she and the other three feel that this fight for a restorative budget took away from the boards ability to focus on other important issues in the district, such as computer labs at Palsson Elementary and the construction of a new elementary school in Lake Cowichan.

“One piece of frustration,” she said, “is that we knew money was coming that would help target areas needing attention such as vulnerable students. Areas where we were struggling were easily financed by the finance committee.”

Schmidt agrees that there have been cuts to education over the years, but she also says she sees education being done differently.

“We need funding absolutely, but the fact of the matter is education is done differently now. We need to sink funds into technology.”

Schmidt says she would not have picked this year as the one to push for more funding as there was a surplus of approximately $250,000 from the job action, and approximately $1 million coming from CUPE and the province in September to go towards vulnerable learners and learning improvements.