Accusations of 'systemic racism' during budget process led to school board chair's resignation

A controversial PowerPoint presentation and the wording of a public survey related to the budget process that rankled some in the Indigenous community were among the issues that led to the resignation of the chairwoman of the Greater Victoria School District.

Jordan Watters, who announced on Twitter Tuesday that she had resigned as chair but would continue to be a trustee, said Wednesday that both were evidence of “systemic racism.”

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Indigenous parent Carey Newman raised the issues in an open letter to the district that he posted on Facebook in May in which he resigned from the district’s Indigenous ad hoc committee.

He wrote that in early May, the district published a survey seeking public input to its budgeting process that asked respondents which of three goals “needs the most investment.” Options included “all learners’ personal and academic success,” “Indigenous learners’ personal and academic success” and “all learners’ physical and mental wellbeing.”

The questions made reference to creating inclusive and culturally responsive environments to support the goals.

Newman said that it is “unconscionable” to ask the public to rank basic rights. In his post, he said the question was removed, but no apology was offered.

He also wrote that at a policy and planning committee meeting on May 10, “after articulating how SD61 has been failing Indigenous learners,” district secretary treasurer Kim Morris spoke about “cutting music in the name of equity, and showed a slide wondering if music would ‘improve Indigenous completion rates,’ asking ‘do Indigenous students participate in band?’ and stating that ‘the biggest impact that SD61 can make on Indigenous student success is literacy.’ ”

At the time, the district was wrestling with a $7-million deficit for the next school year, and had proposed significant cuts to music programs that were later dialled back.

Newman wrote that as an Indigenous musician and father of a child who “recently developed a love for violin while taking elementary strings,” he was “deeply offended” by the suggestion that Indigenous students don’t participate in music programming.

Implying that music cuts are needed to support Indigenous students is “false, divisive” and “the exact opposite of reconciliation,” he said.

The incidents are evidence of “deeply entrenched paternalistic attitudes towards Indigenous people and our education that continue to this day,” he wrote.

Watters said her understanding is that the budget process was viewed as pitting communities against each other. “That was problematic, absolutely.”

Systemic racism is “alive and well in the school district, and in other systems out there, as well,” she said. “I don’t think we are special in that regard.”

Newman declined to comment on the issues that prompted his letter but commended Watters for stepping down.

“I would also say that to rebuild relationships with Indigenous communities, additional accountability is needed.”

Watters said resigning her position was not easy, but ultimately, she’s responsible as the chairwoman of the board.

“Now, did I write the survey? No. Did I write the PowerPoint? No. But I’m the chair of the board and so I’m responsible for those harms and I’m trying to be accountable.”

She has said the resignation came at the request of the Songhees Nation, the Esquimalt Nation, the Métis and the urban Indigenous community.

“This is what has been asked and so I honour that request, and I hope that it’s a positive step forward,” she said. “My heart is broken but my spine is strong and straight.”

Watters has been a school trustee since 2014 and was partway through her third one-year term as chairwoman.

She said as a trustee, she is committed to “trying to address systemic racism and to healing the relationship.”

jbell@timescolonist.com

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