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UPDATE: North Okanagan-Shuswap school board fired due to lack of confidence, money management

School District 83 board chair Bobbi Johnson.
June 15, 2016 - 3:07 PM

NORTH OKANAGAN - The entire North Okanagan-Shuswap School Board was dismissed today and replaced with a former Surrey school superintendent who will take over effective immediately.

The dismissal is one of 42 recommendations in a report by special advisor Liz Watson on School District 83’s governance practices. In her report, Watson says the board is not functioning well and the situation is 'deteriorating rapidly'. She noted the community has lost complete confidence in the board.

The damning report has led the province to helicopter in Mike McKay, the former superintendent of the Surrey School District, to assume the full duties and responsibilities of the board. He’s expected to run things for at least the next year and no by-election will be held to replace the board before then.

The school board requested the review following the resignations of three trustees. Those resignations came after parents discovered $10.5 million in surplus funds were transferred from the operating budget into capital reserves, and then used in part to build a new $9-million board office and a $1-million school works building.

In a press conference held today, June 15, Education Minister Mike Bernier said while transfers are allowed under the School Act, these were too large and not happening in an open and transparent way.

“The challenge is on a community level when you’re making cuts to… programs and saying there’s not enough money and then putting money aside for a new office, that’s where the community said ‘this doesn’t jive,’” Bernier said.

While the board’s financial practices have been called into question, the province says there is no need for police to investigate and the emphasis is being placed upon a new path forward.

“Of course, one of (McKay’s) main tasks will be to get that trust back, that happens through openness, transparency and communication,” Bernier said.

McKay will be responsible for conducting public board meetings, holding public consultation sessions, and looking at the rest of Watson’s 42 recommendations, which are not binding.

Watson’s report makes note of words like ‘gong show’ and ‘a zoo’ used by stakeholder groups to describe the board.

“It was a very unhealthy and non-functioning environment,” Watson said during today’s press conference.

In her report, she notes how the public’s discovery of the budget transfers ‘served as a lightning rod to galvanize community concern’ but was only part of the story.

“Deep philosophical issues exist related to education delivery strategies in the face of declining enrolment – including striking the right balance between urban and rural schools, the level of commitment to middle schools, the issue of potential school closures and the related long-term facility plan, the prioritization of programs – all competing for the same limited resources. We were struck by the complexity of these strategic options and finding the right balance to meet community needs,” she said.

She describes how board meetings have degenerated to the point where 'there appears to be little decorum' and says the emotions experienced by trustees, staff and stakeholder groups are 'profound and troubling'.

Some of the identified challenges in the district include a perceived lack of transparency compounded by the number of in-camera, or private, meetings, lack of experience by the board to provide strategic, operational and financial oversight, and lack of clarity of the role of the board and individual trustees.

Prior to the next election, Watson is also recommending the current number of trustees and the regions they represent be revisited. 

Unlike the board, the school district’s superintendent, Glenn Borthistle, has not been dismissed. 

The special advisor’s report cost $50,000, with the school district paying half and the province covering the other half.

This is only the ninth time a board has been dismissed in B.C. since 1965, and the first time since 2012.

— This story was updated at 3:06 p.m., June 15, 2016, and again at 3:21 p.m. with additional details. 

— This story was corrected at 10:30 a.m., June 16, 2016 to correct the cost of the report to $50,000 from a previously reported $55,000. 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2016
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