There were no additional resignations of North Okanagan Shuswap School District trustees or senior staff at Tuesday’s regular school board meeting – despite the suggestions it was time for the entire board to step down.
Armstrong trustee Kelly Rowe made the suggestion, which was met with resounding applause from the standing-room only crowd of parents and educators at the meeting.
“I’d like the board to dissolve and any one of us could run again for re-election. I don’t feel like we have the confidence of the public anymore.”
Despite Rowe’s suggestion for a mass resignation, the board instead voted in favour of a motion to apply to the Ministry of Education to have a special advisor appointed, “to undertake a review and provide recommendations in a report with respect to the board’s current governance practices.”
This vote split the board 5-4, with Bobbi Johnson, Michel Saab, Chris Coers, Larissa Lutjen and Debbie Evans in favour. Opposed to the motion were Rowe, Bob Fowler, Barry Chafe and Jenn Wilchuk.
The move comes in the wake of a number of controversies including the resignations of trustees Chafe and Wilchuk, who cited board dysfunction as a reason for leaving their posts. The board has also been mired in conflict over recent revelations the school district transferred $10.5 million in operational surpluses into capital funding over the past five years. This money was used in part to fund the construction of the new $9 million District Education Support Centre and a $1 million building for operations staff at the district’s works yard in the Salmon Arm Industrial Park.
The issue only came to the public’s attention when Noah Ralston, a parent and teacher, began to review the public budget documents posted on the school district website and enlisted the help of an accountant to track the funds.
Parents and teachers have expressed outrage that the money designated for funding student services and programs was used for buildings and equipment instead. This is exacerbated by the knowledge that ongoing operational budget cuts has meant the loss or reduction of many school services, including speech and language, learning resource teachers, counselling, and family life education, among many others.
During the meeting, board chair Bobbi Johnson issued a statement regarding the transfers.
“The board takes full responsibility for the decisions and actions taken regarding the construction of the new district education centre and the transfer of operating funds to Local Capital… On behalf of the board, I apologize that this process was not completed in a transparent way as part of the year-end public budget process.”
But an apology was not sufficient for some.
Members of the recently formed Armstrong Spallumcheen Education Society wrote a letter to the board Tuesday afternoon demanding a complete resignation and election of an entirely new group of trustees. Members suggest that every decision made by the board will now be tarnished by a lack of trust, and they are especially concerned as there is still an ongoing consultation process happening regarding the closure of schools in Armstrong, Silver Creek and Sicamous.
The District Parents Advisory Council, who have also been active in advocating for increased openness and accountability form the school district, also say trust in the board and the school district has been broken.
In a statement, the DPAC is calling for a roundtable meeting of all school district partner groups.
“(We) need to sit down, and collectively and frankly figure out the best path forward – one that delivers the best educational experience within our budget – taking into account our most vulnerable children. The number-one priority in this school district needs to be the education of our kids,” says DPAC president Kari Wilkinson.
In addition, one parent called for the resignation of board superintendent Glenn Borthistle, who told the crowd, he too did not know that operational surpluses were being used to fund the new construction. Instead, he said, he thought the money for the new buildings was coming out of the sale of surplus properties and capital grant funding.
While Borthistle conceded he considered resigning, he did not follow through with that course of action. He also apologized that the transfer information was not brought forward as part of an open, transparent process and claimed responsibility for that.
As a regular election is not scheduled until 2018, a byelection will be held to fill the two vacant seats. The school board voted to appoint elections officers for that election and is considering the date of the vote which will likely be either June 18 or 25.
The board has already considered reducing its numbers from nine to seven, however, the Ministry of Education will not allow this to happen at this time. A trustee reduction can only take place after a regulated public process and only at the time of a regular election.