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Geoff Johnson: Chilliwack case shows boards need to take action on inappropriate behaviour

For B.C. school trustees, the view to the east reveals a stormy winter of discontent about the current state of affairs between provincial governments and boards of school trustees. School boards across the country are being challenged or dismantled.
Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld slammed journalists at the local Progress newspaper with a series of epithets before taking down the posts. FACEBOOK

For B.C. school trustees, the view to the east reveals a stormy winter of discontent about the current state of affairs between provincial governments and boards of school trustees.

School boards across the country are being challenged or dismantled. Both Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have ­essentially dissolved local boards. Newfoundland has amalgamated all boards into two — one English, one Francophone — leaving one English school board to serve a province of 526,000 people.

Quebec has vowed to abolish school boards and Manitoba is reviewing its own approach to local governance of education.

As if things are not bad enough, closer to home, newly appointed Minister of ­Education Jennifer Whiteside is launching an investigation into the behaviour of a Chilliwack trustee and, by implication, the board itself.

Chilliwack trustees, by any lights, seem to have failed to chart a safe course between the navigational markers prescribed by the School Act and other guides as to what constitutes acceptable behaviour by elected trustees.

Before I go any further, I should explain that I’ve had experience as a teacher ­working in a centralized school system in New South Wales and in decentralized systems in B.C.

In a centralized system, all decisions of any consequence had to be filtered through the Ministry of Education bureaucracy.

The net effect was the squelching of innovation.

Subsequently, I was delighted when I began to teach in B.C. in 1970 to learn that permission to teach an innovative secondary school course simply required the ­superintendent gaining approval from the local board of trustees.

Since that time, I’ve worked as an ­administrator for three B.C. boards and as a consultant with four others.

Even so, it’s been a rocky road for trustees in B.C. In 1996, the provincial government, with little consultation, arbitrarily reduced the number of school districts and boards from 75 to 60.

Much of the literature about this exercise suggests there was no significant advantage to kids or schools and any savings went straight into government coffers, not local districts. In fact, most of the recent research suggests that decentralized decisions by locally run smaller school districts result in better educational outcomes, especially for vulnerable students.

But back to the kind of problem that has resulted in investigators being sent to the aid of the foundering S.S. Chilliwack.

Government does not intervene lightly in such matters. There have been only four instances in recent memory where a minister has found it necessary to dismiss a board outright. All four dismissals (Cowichan twice) were because of a board’s refusal to submit a budget within provincial guidelines, as required by the B.C. School Act.

The situation in Chilliwack is a bit different. It highlights the board’s inability to reign in the inappropriate online behaviour of one trustee, Barry Neufeld — behaviour that casts a poor light on the functionality of the board as a whole.

While Whiteside has previously said ­Neufeld should resign, the provincial ­government is unable to remove individual elected officials, though as minister, ­Whiteside can fire an entire school board.

And therein may lie the crux of the problem, not only with the Chilliwack situation but with other boards where no internal policy or procedure exists whereby the inappropriate behaviour of an individual trustee can result in that trustee being censured or even removed by vote of the board as a whole.

Chapter 15 of Robert’s Rules of Order would seem, on the face of it, to provide a solution: “In meetings where controversial issues are debated … the chair should remain calm and firmly remind the member of the proper rules of debate.”

Possible penalties for misbehaviour can, by motion of the board, range from an apology by the individual member to that member being expelled from the organization.

But locally elected trustees, many of whom have little or no experience with any form of government, always seem reluctant to take such a step.

The moral of the story is that if boards of education are to maintain the respect of their communities, or, for that matter, survive politically at all and continue providing local communities with access to the governance and possibilities of public education, difficult decisions need to be made.

Those decisions, absent an overdue revamping of the B.C. School Act as it defines what roles trustees play in the system, may be coming too late for the Chilliwack board.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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