Trustees mum on budget at board table

Roughing It

Following the adoption of this year’s School District No.46 budget, consider some remarks made by trustee Stacia Leech from earlier this year.

Having returned from the BC School Trustee Association’s annual general meeting, Leech said there was lots of talk about school boards in Canada becoming “an endangered species.” Last year, publicly elected school boards in Nova Scotia were dissolved and replaced with an advisory council appointed by the provincial government, which she called “astounding.” Other provinces east of the Rockies may follow suit.

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“It reminded me about how important our role is, not just here at School District No. 46, but in advocating for public education because school boards are so important for public education,” Leech told her fellow trustees, staff and the public who appeared for the meeting.

This year was particularly tricky for the largely acclaimed, largely rookie board of trustees who were ushered into power in October. They’ve had a few short months to get a complicated budget process under their belts, while also familiarizing themselves with SD46 board governance, not to mention union bargaining – a collective agreement between CUPE Local 801 and the school district was announced June 19, shortly after the budget adoption.

Which I suspect is what made this particular budget process so tricky – at least, I think so.

I’m forced to make a guess because what was discussed on the record at the last public board meeting amounted to very much nil.

That silence is indicative of a culture of quiet that appears to have seeped into the boardroom at district headquarters. It is unsettling.

Next year’s budget was adopted at that meeting (see story on pages 10 and 12), and only one trustee – Maria Hampvent, who also chaired the committee that oversaw the budget process – voiced concern over it, effectively arguing the budget was being forced through without adequate discussion, including with the public.

“I was at the meetings at the DPAC [District Parent Advisory Council] level and at the committee level, where the meetings ended before the discussion was resolved… I didn’t feel like there was a resolution,” she said, when asked after the meeting why she opposed the budget.

Unfortunately, the Operations Committee takes place in the middle of the day and conflicts with other job obligations, as I’m sure it does for most working parents. And unlike the rest of local government meetings on the Sunshine Coast, committee discussions are not recorded and made publicly available.

Which makes debate and discussion among individual trustees at the monthly regular board meetings critical – and all the more disappointing that they haven’t been happening.

Trustees have a host of obligations, to be sure, but most important among them is the democratic responsibility to openly engage in debate and stake out positions so the public has a handle on how and why decisions are made.

Next year is a fresh slate for these trustees. Let’s hope they’ve learned enough over the summer to revive another endangered species – the courage to hold a public opinion.

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