What’s next for the Chilliwack School Board?

After six months of working to fix the problems in Chilliwack's school board that started with trustee Barry Neufeld, one question remains: was it enough?

By Grace Kennedy | October 25, 2021 |6:14 am

Sleeping. Slurs. Lawsuits. Social media rants and conspiracy theories. Not things one would typically associate with a school board trustee. But Chilliwack trustee Barry Neufeld’s last five years on school board have been far from typical. Now, as the Chilliwack School Board waits to hear if it will be dissolved—in large part because of Neufeld’s actions—it’s worth revisiting how we got here.

In December of last year, BC Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside appointed two special advisors to investigate the school board. The decision followed numerous calls for Neufeld’s resignation after he called Chilliwack Progress employees an ableist slur—one of a series of controversial social media posts he has shared in the last five years. The advisors were told to evaluate the board’s commitment to creating a “safe, inclusive, and welcoming” district for students and staff.

The appointment surprised few. The board had been strongly divided since the 2018 election, which followed a campaign that centred around the province’s SOGI 123 resource. (The resource, which is now used in all school districts in the province, gives educators materials to help develop lessons inclusive of different gender identities and sexual orientation.) Neufeld, who has served on the board since 1993 (although he lost the 2008 election), was the most outspoken and least tactful of the trustees against SOGI, and had been reprimanded for his behaviour under the previous board as well. Darrel Furgason and Heather Maahs also spoke against the resource and other actions intended to be inclusive.

The three formed a socially conservative minority on the board, with Willow Reichelt, Jared Mumford, David Swankey, and Dan Coulter forming the progressive majority. After Coulter was elected to the provincial legislature, biologist and writer Carin Bondar took his place in a tense by-election that gained province-wide attention. The attention wasn’t new. The school board’s conflicts attracted local, provincial, and even national attention from parents, educators and school board trustees who saw something was amiss.

The last 10 years

Click through the slides below to see the Current’s timeline of everything that’s happened since Barry Neufeld’s appointment to the board in 2011.

The special advisors

“I actually felt a sense of relief, like everyone else involved, that they were finally going to get some external support,” Stephanie Higginson, trustee for the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district and president of the BC School Trustees Association, told The Current. “Hopefully [they would] be able to start working towards a more calmer version of governance that we know actually supports student needs.”

Special advisors, Higginson explained, don’t necessarily mean the board is getting fired—although that was an option on many minds when they were appointed. There are very few ways to get rid of an individual trustee, as many had been hoping with Barry Neufeld, who has repeatedly refused to resign. However, it is possible for an entire board to be fired and replaced with a government-appointed official, as happened in Vancouver in 2016.

“The special advisor does carry a certain amount of weight and cachet with it,” Higginson said. “But they don’t necessarily mean a board is going to get fired. They’re there to help, and support the district in whatever area they’ve been appointed in.”

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For Chilliwack, that prompted a round of investigations by the special advisors into how the board worked together, how trustees were supporting the rights of LGBTQ+ students, and whether trustees were following the board’s own Code of Ethics. Only the minister saw the results of the report.

But in April, Whiteside shared a series of required steps: Revise the policies. Establish a plan for student achievement. Get training from the human rights commissioner. Collaborate with First Nations. Revise the trustees’ Code of Ethics.

“The majority of the board is working really hard to get this thing done,” board chair Willow Reichelt said about the list. “We have some distractions on the board, but we are moving forward.”

The distractions have included pushback from Neufeld, Furgason, and Maahs about the required human rights training, which took place in June and saw all trustees receive a refresher in what constitutes human rights, legally. The three trustees said that it was inappropriate to use $1,000 from each trustee’s professional development fund for the training, and Neufeld said they were spending “all this time beating ourselves over the head with human rights when we’ve got to focus on student achievement.” More potential distractions occurred after The Current’s interview with Reichelt, when Barry Neufeld arrived at the grand opening for Imagine High despite not being allowed to attend district events where trustees interact with students.

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Reichelt hopes that despite those issues, the board has shown the minister they’ve addressed her concerns by enshrining new policies, developing new plans, and taking required training. She, along with advisor Mike Mackay, a former Surrey superintendent who has been observing the Chilliwack board since December, will be submitting reports to Whiteside on Oct. 31. (Mackay will remain as an advisor to the board until at least Nov. 12; the board is responsible for his pay.)

When Whiteside receives the reports, she will have three options: to allow the board to continue its activities, to keep an advisor to supervise the board until the 2022 election, or to fire it. All will have significant implications for the board and the community.

So what does it mean?

“The public behind public education is the board,” Higginson said. The people elect the board, which acts as a reflection of the needs of the community. But a board structure is very different from any other elected position, as UBC professor and education historian Jason Ellis noted.

“People tend to think of them in the same way they think of the provincial legislature or the Parliament. But school boards are not that,” Ellis said. “They’re boards. They’re not legislators… It’s not necessary that they be there by popular will.”

It is the school board’s job to implement the provincial government’s educational mandates, particularly when it comes to curriculum or resources like SOGI 123. The board is responsible for setting a balanced budget, and managing the district’s assets, like schools. They are extremely limited in what they can do, and trustees have little ability to impact overarching educational plans. Other boards that do similar jobs are largely non-elected, like hospital boards and police boards. (There are challenges with boards like these too, as the Current reported earlier this month.)

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This corporate board model is one of the reasons why the Chilliwack school board ended up being so dysfunctional: it’s about policy, not politics. So while individual members of a municipal council, for example, are welcome and even encouraged to share their disagreements with a decision, a corporate board is expected to keep debate to the discussion period and then support the final decision as a united front.

“If we want kids’ education to move forward, we can’t keep fighting at the table about things once a decision is made,” Higginson said. “The decision is made through consensus and collaboration, not just as a strict majority.” Those decisions also need to, at the very least, meet human rights standards. “I think there has been a dereliction at the corporate board table in that area,” she said, “and I think that’s led to some pretty serious conflict.”

Whether that conflict continues into the future will depend on the 2022 election—whether or not the Chilliwack school board is fired.

“Trustees may find, if they’re sticking to the more socially conservative positions that people like Neufeld have been advocating, that the electorate in Chilliwack no longer reflects that,” Ellis said. (Bondar’s election to the board during the 2021 by-election can be held up as one example of this potential change.) “On the other hand, they might be held up as folk heroes who fought the power of the evil government.”

Ellis also said that the issues on the Chilliwack school board could prompt some to wonder whether school boards really need to be elected at all. Manitoba did away with school boards this year, as did Nova Scotia in 2018. But even if there was an appetite for that in BC, it is unlikely to happen before the next municipal election. And Higginson has some advice for would-be Chilliwack voters.

“If you elect someone just because of a viewpoint, but they don’t have the ability to constructively engage with other folks, that’s going to be problematic, no matter what their viewpoint is,” she said. “When you are looking at who you’re going to cast your ballot for, I think you also [need to] understand the nature of governance and… make sure you elect folks who can fulfil that mandate.”

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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