Diary of a Mad Trustee/Open Board Meeting April 20th 2011

Principiis Obsta…Finem Respice

Resist the Beginning…Consider the End

 A few things to ponder from this meeting – our much abused ‘Rodney Dangerfield’  policy #1010 which just doesn’t get any respect, the recommendation from one trustee we cancel our membership with the BCSTA and finally the editorial in the local paper which addressed the behaviour at the board table and found it wanting.

First things first – I agree with the premise we should as colleagues be able to dispute matters which come before us in a respectful manner. I was raised in a culture where even the most powerful debate could be undertaken within some umbrella of safety and reverence. If your family meals were characterised by animated political discussion combined with an acceptance all views could and should be tolerated, it is incomprehensible human conversation could be any other way.

However, I do think we should never view disagreement as unconstructive. Media and culture in our environment often deride dynamic political differences as unwholesome and undesirable – someone’s damn fault. This is an unsophisticated and superficial way of thinking in my view. Too bad if someone wants life and politics to offer a bland cocoon of comfort –some things are important enough to warm the room and heat the discourse. However, I understand – it may not always sound like a garden party in the board room so if you don’t wish to hear the beautiful racket then look elsewhere for a quiet life.

It may suit the editorial writer to seek harmony where it does not exist. As for the suggestion we should abandon our strong fighting points in favour of a phony consensus well I have nothing but contempt for that notion. I believe this was the outcry from the editorial -that we as trustees were too busy embroiling ourselves in trivial squabbling to do our real job which I can only surmise is the orderly execution of a terminal budget model – the last of its kind and the only idea worth mentioning.

 Sorry babes – no can do.

Plenty of people our community actually deserve to have their voices heard as well. The politics of public education cannot help but be inflammatory under the current regime. Most trustees I am sure wish they could spend their time improving and creating opportunities for all our kids and all our employees. However – high above us and far from our reach -powerful forces have decided to undermine this rather tender dream. Most of us at the table either have succumbed to the pressure from these forces or are still resisting despite evidence we are entangled in a forlorn enterprise. The tiresome heckling, the misinformation, demeaning body language and the intimidating behaviour you see when you watch nine trustees work through this are an unfortunate outcome but the disputes are entirely in keeping with the work different sections of our community have sent us to do. As our public schools are pulled to pieces to satisfy the morbid revulsion evident in the policies of our governments towards all forms of decency and evenhandedness – not everyone will be able to conjure up the strength to behave well at all times. To those who sit in judgement -redirect your fire a bit – demand better from those left unaccountable.

As to the trustees – we must none of us ever forget -democracy is about presenting sometimes divergent ideas and practices in the service of community not the silencing and destruction of all who disagree with us.

And I try as hard as I can to recall the words of Goethe –“The spirit of man is great; how puny are his deeds”. May we all honour the spirit – and set aside the deeds from time to time.

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Since I became a trustee, one of the most contentious features in the board room has been the denial of delegation status to some of those who seek to approach our board on school district issues. Refusing members of our school community their measly 10 minutes is unnecessary but more to the point there is no support for this option in the policy.

Have a look at our wonderful Policy #1010 –

 Individual or Group Delegations to the Board

 http://bcsd79.civicweb.net/Documents/DocumentList.aspx?ID=1009

It is elegant, concise – it says exactly what I would expect any genuinely inclusive policy to say. Whoever wrote this had every intention of hearing from all who wished to sit and talk to us in the board room. 

 It begins thus

“It is the policy of this Board to be receptive to any one person or groups of persons wishing to petition to or express concerns relative to the educational environment of this District.”

 I don’t hear anything in this sentence which bestows the justification for turning anyone away.

In fact – it opens our doors to all of you and only a sensible allowance for time constraints could be applied. I am a reasonable woman (not really) and even I in my excess and madness do not wish to extend our meetings by hours thus delaying my cuppa.

 “The Chair of the Board may determine the number (my emphasis) of delegations that will be heard at any one Board meeting”. 

 Note it says the chair may determine the ‘number’ not the character of the presentations. So according to the policy this is not- as sometimes it is in practice- an exercise in censorship or selective interest.

 In other words, the policy specifically grants the chair the duties of scheduling the delegations – it may not be reasonable to have several if the meeting will then become overly long. In that case, it makes sense to ask the applicant to come to the following meeting. This permits the chair to place those on our agenda on a first come /first serve basis but allow emergent matters to trump even that.

I must say we have a disappointingly small number of people who wish to come and have a wee chat – many of our meetings have no one in the petitions/delegations portion of the agenda and for that, I am always regretful. So you see – the whole bugbear about too many delegations rarely materialises and if it did, the policy provides us with a good guide.

For reasons I can’t fathom – it has happened repeatedly that board chairs in Cowichan (no doubt with the administrative thumb on the scale) have denied delegations for reasons which do not appear in our policy and make no sense. Parents have been turned away because it is claimed there are more appropriate destinations for their concerns. Our own employees have been told to leave off bothering trustees with their views and apprehensions and take them to their supervisors.

We are the supervisors –trustees- it is all within our realm, our obligation, our trust and since by the final chapter we will bear the full responsibility for everything which comes to pass, it is only right we should be the first to hear not the last, the first to reflect on the distress or the good advice.

Why should a chair or a member of our senior staff stand between all trustees and our community on a personal whim?

There is nothing like democracy and this is nothing like it.

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 My dear pal at the table has for several years during budget time brought a recommendation we cancel our membership with the BC School Trustees Association as a savings. This always gives rise to a flurry of unhappiness and is always voted down. I however support this venture because frankly I do not think we receive good value for money. According to the figures we were sent by our assistant secretary treasurer, we have since 2008/2009 spent $149, 427 plus the cost of the most recent AGM which should be roughly another $5000-$6000 if previous years are anything to go by. The costs are a combination of the yearly fees and the expense of sending trustees and senior staff to both the academy in December as well as the AGM in April (the usual travel, hotels, meals as well as another fee per attendant on top of the yearly cost.)

Now you may recall – at the April 6th board meeting, we had quite the little difference of opinion regarding the reduction of our trustee numbers and we were assured by those who support paring back the voices at our table, this initiative was about reallocating the $20,000 for better use in the district. We argued and yes, it got heated -this was a foolish disregard for democratic function some of us maintained and the $20,000 savings would be a poor show for the loss of two more colleagues to defend our schools. Well – I am here to tell you it can’t have been about the money because a sum many times that of a trustee’s sad salary was considered too high a price to pay if it meant giving up the bright lights and the big city. Either it is more important to have a couple of out of town adventures rather than keep everyone at the table or there is a grand design to gerrymander the board based on some pretty shaky but characteristic assumptions. And since the $20,000 was hailed as a significant bulwark against deteriorating services to kids imagine what 3 times that amount might produce.

I have only attended 3 events through the BCSTA and in every case I find there is nothing they offer by way of seminars or workshops which could not be accessed electronically to good effect. It has been claimed the BCSTA is a critical educational resource for trustees but I can’t say I have ever noticed. It functions largely as a conformity straightjacket to attempt to ensure all trustees are too well mannered to speak plainly on behalf of their community schools.

As for the chorus of disapproval which marked the discussion we had – it should be observed any school board is able to participate in BCSTA activities, such as conferences, without belonging to the association and since we have to pay extra for the privilege of attending them anyway even with a membership this should have given us all pause for thought.

 And as for being advocates for trustees and their role – BCSTA is stubbornly unresponsive to individual trustee issues so don’t imagine they function as shop stewards on our behalf. Perhaps the low point was their complete abandonment of the Vancouver School Board this time last year while those trustees were being subjected to a campaign of vilification by the Education Minister and her hired gun. Nothing there – just a gooey bit of word barf about co governance which should at least demonstrate the association is living in denial.

 The subdued response from the BCSTA and the avoidance of any direct remarks -even a meekly encouraging gesture- on the financial crunch facing the VSB ,when all of the other 60 school districts were in similar straits, was regarded by many trustees as a missed opportunity. And I am certainly one of them.

You would think a large and well staffed organisation like the BCSTA armed with offices and millions of dollars drawn from the shrinking budgets from all our school districts could have over all these years mounted a more convincing campaign to defend our public schools. Lately they have initiated a recommendation which seeks to revise property disposal criteria and processes to enable boards of education to dispose of surplus school property. This is their big gift to the province? This comes after years of community efforts all over BC to protect the public school lands as critical staging areas for future  learning or other commonly held needs. By 2008 the Ministry perhaps mysteriously but possibly out of disquiet over the land rush of sales which were stripping communities of their public lands and future community spaces modified its requirements so as to compel boards  to reserve  unused school property for future educational or  community use.  

But the BCSTA saw fit to pass the following –

“That BCSTA request the Minister of Education work with BCSTA to revise the Disposal of Land and Improvements Order (M193/08) to enable boards of education to dispose of surplus school property.”

As long as we are at the mercy of a grasping ultra conservative government, we can definitely do without a professional organisation which appoints the Minister of Education as its honourary president. All this ritual blowing of smoke up the arses of the mighty may seem a good way to ingratiate yourself but clearly it has not done a damn thing to protect our schools and the programs and services within them.

I think since it is free and has to its credit an aversion to upholding the status quo in all forms, I may suggest we substitute our association with the sainted BCSTA for a lifetime membership in the Hunter S Thompson High Tidemark Society. I am told it offers all members a free funeral which involves having your ashes shot out of a cannon.

I’m in.

Your Trustee Pal

Eden

 

 

 

“When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies”

Darby Slick from Jefferson Airplane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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