Changes begin for North Okanagan-Shuswap School District following board dismissal

Staff, parents and stakeholders react to dismissal of the school board, appointment of official trustee.

Official school trustee Mike McKay.

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.

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.

Former Surrey School District superintendent Mike McKay was appointed by education minister Mike Bernier to replace the board.

McKay has been a teacher, school administrator and was previously appointed as a special trustee in Cowichan when the board was dismissed in 2012.

“This is a go-forward moment,” McKay said when asked about the board dismissal in a meeting with the media Monday. “I am in the process about becoming informed about the school district and will be guided by the recommendations in Liz Watson’s report.”

McKay said he will be holding public board meetings, although conceded that his “board of one” will look different than a typical meeting. He will continue to discuss motions and offer a question period for the public. He also intends to visit each of the communities in the district for consultation.

“I won’t pretend to represent the communities, but I am going to be considering the issues and acting in the best interests of the education system and each child in it.”

McKay says board decisions to defer school closures and conduct community consultation will remain in place until he has had an opportunity for a full review.

“There will be no surprises,” he said. “I am committed to an open process.”

The board’s abrupt dismissal created waves through the district’s communities, all of whom have been grappling with the issue of allocating increasingly scarce resources.

The link to the previous story about the firings can be found here.

Noah Ralston, a parent and teacher, was instrumental in discovering the capital transfers, after wading through years of budget documents, enlisting the help of people in accounting 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 a bit cynical about the replacement of an 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 district for at least a year, and possibly until the 2018 elections.

“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 B.C.

“I hope this doesn’t scare people away from running for thee 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 runs some orientation and training sessions for trustees and offers self-assessment tools.

“This report points to a number of things any elected official should be paying attention to,” says Teresa Rezansoff, BCSTA president.

“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.”


Reaction the the school board dismissal

“I didn’t think it would happen this way – with someone already put in place and this is the door, goodbye. I guess that’s what the government felt like they needed to do. What do I know? I’ve never been fired from a job in my life.”

– Bobbi Johnson, school board chair and trustee since 1999


“Virtually all interviewees described the board functioning in unfavourable terms. Descriptions provided include: dysfunctional, disrespectful (of each other and management), ‘a gong show,’ ‘a zoo,’ no team, frustrating, no big picture thinking, trustees all have their own agendas, no direction.”

– Liz Watson, special adviser


“I think it is a good start. We need new eyes and new blood in this school district… I’m pleased that the government has recognized what has been going on and is taking steps to change it… But it doesn’t change the past.”

– Brandi Lee White, who has initiated a lawsuit against the school district on behalf of her special-needs daughter Jenica


“My biggest frustration is the public doesn’t understand the difference between governance and management. Information was not provided to us that should have been provided to us to help make decisions. We are not involved in the day-to-day operations so we trust the district to provide us with information.”

– Chris Coers, trustee elected in 2005


“We are looking forward to having a strong relationship with Mike McKay and ensuring there is openness and transparency on all school district issues.”

– Kari Wilkinson, president of the DPAC


“Some issues we needed to work on but I don’t think the board was dysfunctional. Lots of school boards in the province are having difficulties. Maybe the problem is with the Ministry of Education.”

– Bob Fowler, trustee since 1996


“I think it is fair to say the board should be commended for their bravery in saying ‘we need help’ and calling in the special adviser. That is putting the interests of the students and the communities first, not their own interests first. That is something to be recognized.”

– Teresa Rezansoff, president BC School Trustees Association

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