After the election: what’s next for the Chilliwack school board

Five progressive trustees. Two conservative ones. Can the new Chilliwack school board fix the dysfunction of the last four years?

By Grace Kennedy | October 21, 2022 |5:00 am

Danielle Bennett was waiting with “pins and needles” as the election results came in Saturday night. She wasn’t the only one in Chilliwack.

“It was a little exciting last night wasn’t it?” Bennett said the following morning. As the president of the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association, she was deeply invested in the outcome of the Chilliwack school board election, which was caught in a tug-of-war between socially progressive and socially conservative candidates.

The association had endorsed six progressive candidates: Willow Reichelt, David Swankey, Carin Bondar, Teri Westerby, Margaret Reid, and Brian VanGarderen. When election night was over, Chilliwack had elected five of them, along with two socially conservative candidates: Heather Maahs and Richard Procee. (VanGarderen finished eighth, just 47 votes behind Procee.)

“That’s great news for us,” Bennett said about the board composition. The endorsed candidates “are the ones that we felt held the closest values to our own. That doesn’t mean we aren’t willing to work together with the other trustees—of course we are.

“We will do all we can to engage them in conversation and collaborative dialogue.”

That, of course, will be the hard part.

The trustees will need to show Chilliwack residents they can move beyond the dysfunction of the last four years and get down to work for students, teachers, and parents.

But first, we dive into how the election played out across the community.

Story continues below.

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How Chilliwack voted

In the weeks leading up to Oct. 15, tensions were high and campaigns were vigorous. Candidates were busy getting their names and platforms out to the electorate—through signs, radio ads, social media posts, and door-to-door flyers.

But when it came to the actual election day, things were slower than expected.

Across Chilliwack, only 23% of eligible voters made it out to the polls, with 16,264 ballots cast. (In 2018, the voter turnout was nearly 39%.) That’s only 5,500 more votes than the controversial school board by-election in 2021, when Bondar and Procee battled it out for the majority-deciding spot on the board.

Katie Bartel, president of Chilliwack’s District Parent Advisory Council, said that historically, lower turnouts result in more conservative school boards. That was not the case this year.

“I think that indicates a bigger shift than maybe we had estimated,” she said.

Overall, progressive candidates went home with 53% of the vote. And each voter made an effort to provide a nearly full list of the people they wanted populating the board. While the past three elections have seen voters choose an average of four school board candidates on their ballot, this election saw the average voter choose six.

The results suggest that voters were likely following the suggestions put out by candidates themselves. Seven conservative candidates banded together, explicitly endorsing and naming each other as qualified candidates. Those seven all had between 6,000 and 7,100 votes. (The exception was Lewis Point, who was still on the ballot but had dropped out of the race.) Barry Neufeld had the lowest total of that group, with only 6,006 votes in his favour.

Six progressive candidates did the same. They all had between 7,000 and 8,900 votes each. Bondar had the highest vote total of that group, with 8,888 ballots to her name—a continuation of her success in the 2021 by-election.

The two candidates who were not specifically endorsed by either group, Greg Nelmes and Darren Ollinger, had 4,000 and 1,400 votes respectively.

So, voters picked their sides. But each polling station’s results showed that the support for each side wasn’t evenly distributed across town.

Chilliwack polling stations were fairly divided on whether they supported conservative or progressive trustee candidates. 📸 Grace Kennedy

Overwhelmingly, Chilliwack residents in more rural areas were more likely to vote for the conservative school board candidates. The polling station at Greendale Elementary had twice as many conservative votes as progressive ones, while the polling station at Rosedale Traditional School saw two out of every three votes go to the conservatives.

(A caveat: residents did not need to vote at the polling station closest to their home. However, it is more likely that they did so.)

Residents in Chilliwack’s more urban areas were more likely to vote progressive. Progressive candidates earned roughly 55% of the vote in downtown Chilliwack, 60% in Sardis and Promontory, and 66% in Cultus Lake.

Of all the places in Chilliwack, only Yarrow was split neatly down the middle. There, Bondar had the highest number of votes, with 318 to her name. But Procee was right behind, with only four fewer votes.

The board make up

In the end, Chilliwack elected five progressive and two conservative trustees to the board. The progressives: Willow Reichelt, Carin Bondar, David Swankey, Margaret Reid and Teri Westerby. The conservatives: Heather Maahs and Richard Procee.

Maahs, Reichelt, Bondar, and Swankey are all returning to the board table. Westerby, Reid, and Procee will be coming in fresh. There has been a strong focus on the election of Westerby, who will be the first openly trans man to be elected to public office in Canada.

(Julie Lemieux is the first trans woman elected to public office in Canada—she won the mayor’s seat in Quebec’s Tres-Saint-Redempteur in 2017.)

For both Bartel and Bennett, having Westerby elected to the board was a “profound moment” for Chilliwack. Bartel was at the progressive candidates’ election night party, and saw the reaction when the final results came in.

“Everyone was happy and hugging… and his nephew, who is also trans, came over and gave him a hug,” she said. “I think that really brings that message home more. People can be who they are and be safe and included and leaders in the community.”

There is a hope among many parents and teachers that a strong majority from the progressive trustees will mean that the infighting from the last four years is gone for good. But Bennett also noted that having Maahs on the board is also a benefit for the district. Despite having been at loggerheads with some of the more progressive candidates recently, Maahs is the only elected trustee to have served more than one term on the board.

“Having that experience on the board is important. And having a balance of voices is important too,” Bennett said. “It’s nice to see all the progressives there, because we do need to move forward. But we do need that representation from the entire community.”

What comes next

The newly elected trustees might be tempted to take a breather after the campaign. But once they are sworn in on Nov. 7, it’s time for the hard work to begin.

Over the past four years, the Chilliwack school board has been marked by dysfunction, both in board meetings and behind the scenes. Trustees themselves have said they were too exhausted by the bickering to focus on some of the important, and basic, district work they needed to do—and both DPAC and the CTA picked up on that.

For the next four years, Bartel and Bennett are hoping the trustees will be able to work on collaboration, and more importantly, communication.

“It’s been a rough road,” Bennett said. Communication “was not always the best, even with the progressive trustees, just because of all the infighting. It made working on the actual work for the district very difficult.”

Bartel echoed the sentiment, saying that there wasn’t a clear communication structure when DPAC contacted trustees about parent issues. It wasn’t always obvious who would respond to concerns, and trustees would often only respond to issues they felt particularly strongly about.

In the next four years, that will have to change, the two women said.

They have other hopes as well. Bennett wants the board to establish a liaison position for the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association—something DPAC had with the last board—so trustees can have a better understanding of what teachers need. She also wants trustees to question the information that is brought forward to the board table more often.

Bartel, for the most part, wants more meaningful consultation for parents and other partner groups like CUPE and the teachers’ association.

“We’re just hoping for more involvement and more transparency from the district,” she said.

Whether the board can deliver will depend on how well the five trustees can work together. With a 5-2 majority for the progressives—and both Barry Neufeld and Darrell Furgason gone—there appears to be a better chance of that than there was four years ago.

Correction: We incorrectly identified incoming trustee Margaret Reid by the wrong first name in the original version of this story. Her name has been corrected and we regret the error.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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