North Okanagan Shuswap trustees’ dismissal prompts reactions

School board relieved of their duties, replaced by single official trustee, who will manage school district for at least one year.

Mike McKay was appointed by the province to manage School District #83.

Stunned, shocked, cynical, hopeful.

These are among the reactions to the news the entire North Okanagan-Shuswap school board has been relieved of their duties and replaced by a single official trustee, who will exclusively manage the school district for at least one year.

Former Surrey School District superintendent Mike McKay has been appointed, effective immediately, by education minister Mike Bernier to replace the board.

The dismissal follows the release of special adviser Liz Watson’s report into the governance of the board in the wake of a financial scandal where more than $10 million was transferred from the school district’s operating fund to pay for the costs of the new $9 million school district administration building. At the same time, the board was cutting educational programs and considering school closures, citing a lack of operational funds.

Noah Ralston, a parent and school district teacher was instrumental in discovering the capital transfers, after wading through years of budget documents, enlisting the help of people with accounting background and tenaciously asking questions.

“My first reaction is these were regular folk who got involved in the school board because they were passionate about education and believed they could make a positive difference… I think they were expecting a report outlining how to help them fix some of these things, and instead they’ve been fired. So I feel for them.”

Ralston says he feels uncomfortable and a bit cynical about the replacement of an democratically elected board with a single trustee.

“I’m curious if Mr. McKay will be representing the people of this area or the government. If he’s come to establish a fresh start and get some new mechanisms in place, I think that could be a good thing. I’m trying to be hopeful that’s how it will work out.”

Another group which has been critical of the school district spending and operations is the District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC), who called the dismissal of the board a necessary first step.

“SD83 parents have been heard. The Watson report is comprehensive and accurately represents the concerns and dismay voiced by the vast majority of parents throughout the district.,” said the DPAC in an emailed statement.

The group acknowledges that some parents are nervous about a single ministry-appointed trustee overseeing the school distort for at least a year, and possibly until the 2018 elections.

“Trustee McKay will use the recommendations in the Watson report as tools to help lay the foundation for a strong framework for our district’s board and management to function within. DPAC will continue to work diligently on behalf of SD83 students and parents ensuring your voices continue being heard.”

Some of the recommendations in the Watson report outline the need for additional training for trustees, including some minimum level of competency in governance and financial matters.

The impacts of this are potential far-reaching and include trustees and municipal politicians across the province.

“I hope this doesn’t scare people away from running for the positions,” says Ralston. “We need local people in the process. Hopefully now, there will be some change within the system. They will get some better training for their jobs and the next set of people we elect can be that much stronger and better equipped.”

The BC School Trustees Association (BCSTA) is reviewing the report and will also be considering what Watson had to say. The BCSTA already does run some orientation and training sessions for trustees, as well as offering them self-assessment tools.

“This report points to a number of things any elected official should be paying attention to,” says Teresa Rezansoff, BCSTA president, who says their organization is always looking for ways to help trustees do their jobs effectively.

“We cannot expect that newly elected people have all the knowledge, but that they are willing to put in the time and effort to do the best job possible. We need to protect the democratic foundation that any citizen who gets the support of their constituents in an election is deemed suitable. Being elected is vastly different than being appointed.”