Editorial: School board muzzles debate

The Greater Victoria School Board’s attempts to censure one of its members for expressing what might be an unpopular opinion doesn’t bode well for open discussion.

Trustee Deborah Nohr had raised concerns about the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils. This prompted trustee Bev Horsman to bring a motion to the board calling for trustees to express regrets for Nohr’s statements. That motion, which had the backing of chairwoman Peg Orcherton, was withdrawn Monday when the board passed a motion affirming its support for the confederation.

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VCPAC represents the local parent advisory councils in the district and has a non-voting seat at the board table. Nohr is concerned that the confederation has an undue influence on board business and doesn’t necessarily speak for a majority of the parents. This came to the fore when she wanted wider input on the use of Wi-Fi in schools.

VCPAC president John Bird said Nohr’s concern implied his organization was not democratic, and wanted to know if the board shared his concerns.

Each parent or guardian of a child in the district’s schools is automatically a member of the local parent advisory council. In theory, that’s about as democratic as you can get. In practice, apathy and lack of awareness could allow special-interest groups and cliques to take control and keep newcomers out of executive positions. It’s easy to stack meetings for a particular objective. But that’s the nature of the beast — the cure is for parents to stop sitting on their hands, to stay informed and to be involved.

Nohr had questions about how VCPAC collected input on the Wi-Fi issue. She wanted to know how many parents were involved in the discussion and if a survey was conducted. She says VCPAC is a legitimate voice, but there are many voices.

Nohr might be off-target in criticizing VCPAC, but that’s not the point. By raising a concern, she presents the opportunity for discussion and clarification. If other trustees disagree, they can — and should — say so.

But there’s a big difference between “I don’t agree” and “you can’t say that.”

An elected official should be constrained in his or her public comments by legality, fairness and civility, not by what some might deem to be an unpopular or uncomfortable stance.

It’s useful to challenge information brought before the board. If the criticism proves to be unfounded, the validity of the information strengthens because of the scrutiny. If the criticism uncovers flaws or weaknesses, those aspects can be corrected.

People in public positions — be it Parliament, the legislature, the school board or a parent advisory council — should welcome criticism and questions.

A school trustee is elected to take concerns from the public to the board, not merely to reflect the opinions of the board to the public.

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