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Comment: School board crisis needs minister's intervention

Starla Anderson is a retired teacher; Deborah Nohr is a teacher and served as a school trustee from 2011 to 2018; and Carol Pickup is a former school board trustee and former ­Saanich councillor. All three are public-school advocates.
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Three public-school advocates argue that the Greater Victoria School Board had no authority to suspend two democratically elected trustees. TIMES COLONIST

Last month, the Times Colonist reported that two Greater Victoria School District trustees had been suspended by a majority vote of their colleagues and would not be allowed to return to their duties for the last months of their tenure.

District chair Ryan Painter said the decision to suspend trustees Rob Paynter and Diane McNally was made after the board received a report from legal counsel that two staff members had felt harassed by them.

Since the suspension, there has been considerable outcry by stakeholder associations who argue that the board had no authority to suspend democratically elected trustees.

The Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, the Songhees Nation and two Canadian Union of Public Employees locals have all publicly expressed a lack of confidence in the board and announced that they will boycott its meetings for the remainder of its current term or until the suspended members are reinstated.

Painter contends that the seven trustees who remain in good standing constitute a quorum and that they are competent to manage the board’s business. There is little reason to share Painter’s optimism, however.

A year ago, with all nine trustees and all of the stakeholder groups attending school-board meetings, they required the expertise of Joan Axford, a retired Saanich School District secretary-treasurer, to help them submit their 2021-22 budget in time for the June deadline set by the Ministry of Education.

At the Feb. 28 school board meeting, Edith Loring-Kuhanga, who served on the district board for seven years and chaired it for four, appealed to many of her former colleagues to reinstate the suspended trustees.

“I have examined the School Act and Regulations, and I could not find the term ‘suspension of trustees,’” she stated, adding that the board’s own bylaws allow it to censure trustees, but not to suspend them.

The board admitted as much in its Feb. 11 statement: “The board is now reviewing its bylaws and trustee code of conduct to ensure measures are in place to address the situation.”

The early February in-camera meeting at which five of the nine school-board members voted to suspend McNally and Paynter was closed to the public; however, the board’s disclosure of this in-camera meeting indicates that trustees Ann Whiteaker and Nicole Duncan left the meeting before it ended. It was further reported that the two did not vote on the suspension.

With so much dissension among trustees, the British Columbia School Trustees Association might have given assistance. The BCSTA describes its mission as “helping to build effective boards of education by providing development, communications and support services.”

At the Feb. 28 public meeting, Whiteaker asked her colleagues whether the board was getting value for the BCSTA’s annual fee of more than $50,000. Some trustees expressed support for their professional-development opportunities, but there was no indication that the services stated in the BCSTA’s mission statement had been requested.

McNally and Paynter have now individually filed appeals to B.C.’s Supreme Court. They hope their appeals will be heard swiftly so that they may resume their positions at the board table.

If the court decides to hear the case, McNally and Paynter will be personally out-of-pocket in seeking to clarify a legal position for the entire province while the five trustees who voted to suspend them will have their legal counsel paid for by the district’s taxpayer-funded budget.

Since a court challenge is likely to be both time-consuming and costly, we call upon Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside to reinstate the two democratically elected trustees who have, in our view — as well as the views of stakeholder organizations — been unlawfully suspended. We believe it is vital that all stakeholder organizations return to the school board table and that all nine elected trustees be present to hear their suggestions and concerns.

With Whiteside’s intervention, there is still time for the full board, in consultation with representatives of the communities it serves, to prepare the 2022-2023 budget before the end-of-June deadline.

With a restored democratic process, the 20,000 students in the district will be better served, and the funds that would otherwise go to legal costs will remain in the school district.

The fates of all nine trustees, should they decide to stand for re-election in October, will be determined, as is right and fitting, by the voters of the communities that make up the Greater Victoria School District.

> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: letters@timescolonist.com