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Province says no, again, to byelection for fired Cowichan school board

The B.C. government has changed its mind yet again and decided against holding a byelection to replace fired school trustees in the Cowichan Valley.
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Education Minister Peter Fassbender

The B.C. government has changed its mind yet again and decided against holding a byelection to replace fired school trustees in the Cowichan Valley.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender reversed a decision by his predecessor, Don McRae, to hold a vote this fall.

Instead, Fassbender said the district will continue to with an appointed trustee, Surrey superintendent Mike McKay, until a municipal election in 2014.

McKay, who was appointed in July 2012, has brought in two balanced budgets and approved a plan that entails closing six schools and charging students to ride the bus.

“This long-term plan aims to improve student achievement and provide strong support for the needs of the Cowichan Valley community in coming years,” Fassbender said in a statement.

“As a result, I don’t believe there’s a need for the district to hold a byelection this fall and incur additional expenses estimated to be well over $100,000.”

Fassbender, a former Langley school trustee and mayor, said he respects local autonomy, but that keeping the appointed trustee in place “allows further debate and discussion leading up to the municipal general election in November 2014.”

Former board chairwoman Eden Haythornthwaite, who was among the trustees fired last year, said Fassbender’s decision came as no surprise.

“Listen, I mean as long as you can get somebody to cut services so they can balance the budget, then why not go with it, right?” she said.

“Unless they’re going to have an elected board that stands up and actually attempts to defend the system, I don’t know whether it matters very much whether they have an elected board or an appointed trustee. Except for the last six months I was sitting there, the boards behaved more or less the same way: They just made all the cuts that were necessary to provide a balanced budget.”

Former education minister George Abbott fired Haythornthwaite and the rest of the board in July 2012 for refusing to balance the budget.

He then appointed McKay and rejected calls for a byelection.

Abbott’s successor, McRae, reversed course a few months later and promised a vote this fall.

“I just thought it was important that we have a democratically elected school board in the Cowichan Valley, and I didn’t want to wait until 2014,” McRae said on Oct. 11, 2012.

Fassbender, who replaced McRae after the provincial election in May, has flipped back to Abbott’s original position.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Jim Iker said the move continues the government’s “disturbing pattern” of shoving aside elected officials.

He noted that the government recently replaced the board of the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association with a single administrator. The association represents school boards across the province.

“The parents and the public in Cowichan deserve an elected school board like every other community that has elected school boards,” Iker said.

But Caroline Kirman, president of the Cowichan Valley District Parent Advisory Council, said parents were concerned about the potential cost of a byelection.

“This means that the stability will continue for another year,” she said. “Considerable restructuring has just occurred in our district and this allows the restructuring process to continue without further costs.”

Kirman praised McKay’s leadership over the past year and his willingness to consult with the public. “I think, first and foremost, he’s always had students in mind and that has actually been a refreshing change because previous boards have taken some of the other aspects of their governance as more of a priority sometimes.”

lkines@timescolonist.com