School district #83's new District Education Support Centre has been at the centre of a heated controversy regarding financial management by the board of trustees.

School district #83's new District Education Support Centre has been at the centre of a heated controversy regarding financial management by the board of trustees.

North Okanagan-Shuswap school board dismissed, new trustee appointed

Minister of Education Mike Bernier appoints special trustee following today's release of special advisor Elizabeth Watson's report.

The entire North Okanagan-Shuswap school board has been relieved of their duties and replaced by a single official trustee, who will exclusively manage the school district for at least one year.

Former Surrey School District superintendent Mike McKay has been appointed by education minister Mike Bernier to replace the board, effective immediately.

The dismissal follows the release of special adviser Liz Watson’s report into the governance of the board in the wake of a financial scandal where more than $10 million was transferred from the school district’s operating fund to pay for the costs of the new $9 million school district administration building. At the same time, the board was cutting educational programs and considering school closures, citing a lack of operational funds.

The board met Tuesday night, but in advance of the meeting was instructed by the minister not to make any major financial or policy decisions, which sparked speculation about the future of the board.

Six trustees, including Bobbi Johnson, Michel Saab, Bob Fowler, Larissa Lutjen, Debbie Evans and Chris Coers, have now been removed from their positions. Three trustees, Barry Chafe, Jenn Wilchuk and Kelly Rowe, previously resigned from the board following those revelations, citing board dysfunction as another major issue.

Watson’s report confirms this stating, “The realization of how the district office was funded served as a lightning rod to galvanize community concern about how the district was being governed and managed and its transparency with stakeholders. Stakeholders have lost trust in the district trustees and superintendent… Board meetings have degenerated to the point where there appears to be little decorum. The ability to carry on district business is seriously hampered.”

Going forward, Watson is also recommending a change in the structure of the board and the number of trustees, citing strongly held views among those she consulted with that “individual trustees often put the needs of the region they represent, and who elects them, before the needs of the board as a whole.”

She also pointed to an “eroding trust” between trustees and senior management, as well as serious concerns regarding the openness and transparency of the board, which was compounded by the amount of business being conducted at closed-door meetings.

The link to Liz Watson’s complete report can be found here.

This is the ninth time since 1965 an entire board has been removed from office.

“Dismissing a board is neither pleasant or easy, but this unusual step is required at this time so the public can have faith in the administration of education in their community,” said Bernier. “It’s also a step that ensures the school district in question fulfils its responsibilities to the community and to taxpayers.”

McKay will assume all the roles and duties currently governed by the board, including obligations to conduct public board meetings and community consultation. He was already at the school district administrative offices Wednesday afternoon.

His appointment could be extended beyond his one-year contract, if deemed necessary. Watson’s report recommends the special trustee be in place until the next regularly scheduled municipal election in 2018.

Bernier says McKay’s first goal is to meet with school district staff with a view to the 42 recommendations made in Watson’s report.

At a press conference, Bernier noted Watson’s recommendations are not binding, but will be considered and used as “tools” for McKay’s administration of the school district. There were also questions as to whether senior administration, including the superintendent, would also be dismissed, however, Bernier said it would now be part of McKay’s role to assume responsibility for determining staffing decisions.

Board chair Bobbi Johnson was notified of the dismissal one hour before it become public. She was dismayed the school district was not given the report to view in advance of the announcement, noting she had to call the trustees to give them the news of the board dissolution.

“There was shock, there was disappointment. I didn’t even reach them all in time. That was difficult.”

Johnson says she was not entirely surprised by the decision.

“I was thinking that it might have to go that way,” she said Wednesday afternoon of the decision to dissolve the board. “The public does not have a lot of faith in us, even though we’ve done nothing wrong. But public trust is the most important part of the job… We’ve not done anything wrong. It was our governance. It was not what we did, but how we did it.”

Johnson says she is confident students will continue to receive a high-quality education. When asked about any future election, Johnson said she believes the best course of action would be for McKay to remain in place until the regular 2018 election, at which point a new number of trustees and board structure could be in place. It has been suggested the number of trustees be reduced from the current nine to seven or less.

Johnson says she had already planned to resign at the end of this term, so will not consider a re-election bid.

Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo says he is pleased by the minister’s decision, calling it a “necessary first step” in restoring public confidence in the school district.

He noted the school board reached out to the ministry to appoint a special adviser, knowing their dismissal could be a possible outcome.

“This was not initiated by the ministry, but by the board themselves.”

Kyllo assures the public McKay will be responsive.

“Board meetings will continue to happen; that is one of his responsibilities.”

The Watson report cost $50,000, half of which will be paid for by the Ministry of Education, with the other half coming directly from the school district.

McKay is the same special trustee who was appointed in the Cowichan School District in 2012, when that board was turfed for failing to balance their budget.