DUNCAN—While Cowichan Valley kids are back at school, their democratically-elected school trustees aren’t. District 79 is still being overseen by an appointed trustee after the province tossed the board out for submitting a needs-based budget in May.
The Cowichan Valley Board of School Trustees voted for a budget with a $3.7-million deficit, explaining its duty was to protect and restore services for students after years of government cuts. The board called for vital school services such as adequate hours of work for education assistants, custodial time, technology courses and bus service.
CUPE and other groups, including the BC Association of School Business Officials, have identified this structural funding shortfall that has left many school districts squeezed to cut more and more services.
Under the B.C. School Act, boards are not permitted to run a deficit without ministry permission, despite the government’s chronic underfunding of K-12. Then Minister of Education George Abbott fired the board and replaced it with an appointed administrator. Calls for a by-election to return to an elected board have been ignored by Abbott and his successor Don McRae.
Abbott said he saw no need for an election before the next municipal elections in 2014. Before leaving his post, Abbott also said he didn’t want to hold a by-election because the people of the Cowichan Valley might return the same trustees that he had just fired.
Last week, Cowichan Valley NDP MLA Bill Routley called on McRae to hold that by-election.
"The School Act recognizes that the leadership of our schools is best placed in the hands of British Columbians as exercised through their right to elect local school trustees. Indeed, where vacancies exist for more than three trustees, the School Act mandates the holding of a by-election. Our school district at present does not have a single elected school board trustee," Routley wrote to McRae.
He said he saw "no good reason" why a part-time appointed trustee from another school district is to be preferred to "the democratic choice of our electorate".
Cowichan Valley residents have launched a petition under the heading Let Cowichan Decide that says to the BC Liberals that “qualified voters and taxpayers in the Cowichan School District #79 should be represented by an elected Board of School Trustees” and that “taxation without representation is unacceptable.” The petition calls on the BC Liberals to hold a by-election within 60 days.
“This is a situation where CUPE members can do what they do so well – take local action to protect their communities,” says CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill. “Our members in the Cowichan Valley are parents, students and strong supporters of public education. They are also voters who can elect fellow community members that advocate for a strong public education system, reflect community values and stand up for full education funding.”