No byelection for fired Cowichan school board

Education Minister George Abbott has rejected calls for a byelection to replace fired members of the Cowichan school board. Abbott, who sacked the board earlier this year for failing to submit a balanced budget, said the district likely will be run by a government-appointed trustee until the next round of municipal elections in 2014. The board majority, which passed a deficit budget by a 5-4 margin, was “clearly looking for a political fight” and received fair warning of the consequences, he said. “It is likely that the same majority of five, who were there last time, would compete for office again, and given their past performance, would probably take the opportunity again to look for a political fight with the government.” The board voted 5-4 to submit a budget with a $3.7 million deficit rather than make further cuts to services. A minority of trustees along with senior district officials argued that it was possible to balance the budget without making deep cuts.Abbott replaced the board with Surrey superintendent Mike McKay.  A number of ousted trustees initially talked of challenging their removal in court, but decided that would take too long and cost too much money. Former board chairwoman Eden Haythornthwaite said earlier this month that the trustees planned to push for a by-election instead. But Abbott said Tuesday that nobody would be well-served by a repeat confrontation. “I’m always willing to hear people out on what they intend to do, but there’s no point in continuing a continuous round of elections, firings and re-elections,” he said. Abbott made the comments during an hour-long conference call with reporters Tuesday in advance of a new school year, which gets under way next week. The minister said he’s hoping for a more “harmonious” year after one marred by labour conflict between government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. The two sides reached a mediated settlement this summer, and Abbott said he does not expect a repeat of last year when teachers stopped coaching sports teams and participating in extra-curricular activities. “I’m hoping that this year gives us an opportunity to try to build at least a little better relationship between government and the teachers’ federation,” he said. BCTF president Susan Lambert was less optimistic. She said the government’s failure to properly invest in education will mean larger classes, fewer supports and further cuts by school districts. “So that’s not going to make for a more harmonious relationship,” she said. “It can never be business as usual — it hasn’t been for the last decade —  because each and every year has exacerbated the cuts of the year before and that has stretched teachers far too thin.” The two sides will resume bargaining again in the spring with the current contract set to expire next summer. It’s unclear, however, whether Abbott will still be around by then. The minister declined to say Tuesday if he plans to run in the next provincial election. “I have not made a final decision on that, but I will not be keeping you in suspense for long,” he said. “I’m hoping to announce a decision in that regard in the immediate days ahead.”  lkines@timescolonist.com

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