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A closer look inside the school board

For better or for worse, the New Westminster school district operates "as directed by the board.

For better or for worse, the New Westminster school district operates "as directed by the board."

Currently, the most pressing issue facing the board is a sizeable surprise deficit and yet discussion is now starting to focus on the hiring of a communications expert.

To be clear, I fully support a complete restructuring of school district "communication."

It's a laudable objective, but make no mistake, to make it happen will require a comprehensive shift away from current practices, and that depends entirely on "political will," because information is empowering. My only concern is that the board's attention will focus more on the "new hire" than on the $2.8 million deficit. Ideally, I would like to see what could be achieved if district finances, governance, and communications were all in good order.

At this point, I can't help but look back to nearly twelve-and-a -half years ago (May 2000) when the New Westminster school district was reported to be in a deficit situation, "the first one ever." My son's special education assistant was issued a layoff notice and it was the first time I'd heard the now-common mantra about the "underfunding of education."

The following November, I ran and was elected to the board. Having been a parent for 22 years, and an elected trustee for 12 years, I can tell you that the underfunding of education is historic to all provincial governments but ultimately, the responsibility for the district's finance problems lies with the board of education.

The board of seven trustees acts as a single entity (majority rule) and the decisions that trustees make at the board table determine how the Ministry of Education dollars are spent at the local level; this, in turn, determines whether a balanced budget is achieved, or not.

Some trustees have come and gone, but right now, Michael Ewen, James Janzen and myself are the veterans on the board and can fully attest to the fact that for a long time, the consequences of financial and governance struggles have persisted with little relief for staff and students. That said, it is equally as important to note that there has also always been many incredibly positive things happening in the district.

Through the years, board challenges have ranged from trustee collegiality and effectiveness to the asbestos crisis; to grade configurations for the middle school model; to governance mismanagement (the Royal City Education Foundation and SD40 Business Company), and deficit-recovery processes; not to mention the many issues continued from page 6 hampering the construction and replacement of schools, etc. - and these adversities have been significant. To state the obvious, if the new board priority is to achieve positive press, simply put, the best way to generate "good news" is to stop generating "bad news".

Typically, in the past, the board response to its various problematic issues has always been to hire consultants to provide direction and recommendations for resolution of those problems.

Currently, as reported, yes, there are ongoing discussions about hiring yet another consultant to address the current deficit. In my experience, the most effective district intervention was conducted by the attorney generals's office solely because with the AG, there is an expectation of compliance that doesn't exist with hired private consultants. It is my opinion that the District's current deficit status would be best served by another A-G intervention.

The reality is that every choice made at the board table has had corresponding consequences at the local level, consequences that have affected staff and students, and by extension, families alike.

We are all too familiar with print, radio and television media coverage of frustrated parents and demoralized staff, and yet thankfully, the poor physical condition of our schools, the rounds of cuts to staff and supplies, etc. hasn't adversely impacted our student achievement stats.

Personally, I think that speaks volumes for the quality and dedication of our New Westminster school district staff - teachers, SEAs, support staff - the whole lot, but I worry about how much longer these good people can continue to "carry" a dysfunctional board. Perhaps at this juncture, we will be able to start to turn this district's problems around.

Lisa Graham is a New Westminster school trustee.