SALMON ARM - The entire board of education in the North Okanagan-Shuswap School District, and the superintendent, were called upon to resign at a packed public meeting last night.
The calls for resignation come after parents discovered $10.5 million in surplus operating funds were transferred into capital funds over the past five years and used to build the new $9 million District Education Support Centre and a $1 million facility in the school works yard.
Initially, the school district defended the practice, stating in a press release that surpluses were realized at the end of each year due to ‘conservative budgeting and careful spending.’
On Tuesday, April 12, board chair Bobbi Johnson read out a new statement.
“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,” Johnson said. “At future meetings we will be addressing how the district plans to move forward so that the budget process is as transparent as possible.”
She said 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 capital funds. She added the annual transfers were clearly identified in the school district financial statements, which include a note specifically outlining the transfers. These statements are posted on the school district’s website, Johnson said.
Johnson also explained that the secretary-treasurer of the day — who now works for the Vernon School Distrct — was asked to do two things: build a new district education centre and get the district out of funding protection.
“He did both,” Johnson said, adding he is one of the longest serving and well-respected secretary-treasurers in the province.
Two trustees have already filed letters of resignation, but some parents want the entire board and the superintendent, to resign over the transfer of funds.
Trustee Kelly Rowe supported the idea, and asked her colleagues to consider dissolving the entire board to give the public the opportunity to elect who they want in a by-election — an idea that garnered applause from the audience.
Resigning trustee Barry Chafe also supported the idea.
“We’re broken and I don’t know if we’ll ever fix it,” Chafe said.
Other trustees said they had made a commitment to their communities and intended to serve out the remainder of their terms. Instead of dissolving the board, a majority of trustees voted to apply to the Ministry of Education to have a special advisor review the board’s current governance practices.
“I think this review makes sense here, because obviously we could use a look, we have to take a look at how we do things,” trustee Chris Coers said.
The board also requested an annual report for all schools in a deficit, as well as all schools that have more than 10 per cent of their yearly budget allocation leftover at the end of the year.
During a 15-minute question period at the end of the board meeting, trustees, and the superintendent, were called upon to resign. One speaker questioned superintendent Glenn Borthistle directly about the money transfers, asking if he knew the new District Education Centre was funded by surpluses.
“No. My belief was that… funding for this building was coming out of sales of surplus property,” Borthistle said. “No, I was not aware that surplus funds were being used to fund the construction of the board office or any part of the capital plan.”
Borthistle said he has considered resigning, but added that discussion is between himself and the board.
The practice of transferring surplus funds is not illegal, and the school district says 58 out of 60 districts across the province have done the same thing. But parents say the way it was done was not open, transparent, or ethical.
District Parent Advisory Committee vice president Jennifer Henrie said following the meeting there is a huge lack of trust and lack of confidence in the board.
“The biggest blow was the messaging. Parents were given the message that we are experiencing tough times and there was cut after cut after cuts. At the same time, we realize now there were surpluses realized, and the board did have the opportunity to keep those operating funds in the operating budget to pay for student programs and supports, or they could have chosen to move it to capital, which they did.”
“The hurt really, for many of the parents, is that this building we’re sitting in was paid for with surpluses and operating funds originally intended for students.”
School District 83 board chair Bobbi Johnson speaks with iNFOnews.ca about the practice of transferring surplus operating funds into the capital works budget.