Education Minister George Abbott has cancelled democracy in the Cowichan Valley School District because he can’t abide “political grandstanding” by locally-elected trustees.
This characterization issued by a discredited provincial government that has turned political grandstanding into an art form over the past decade. The hypocrisy is delicious. So is the fact that news of Abbott’s coup d’état swept through the community on Canada Day, the day we celebrate the miracle of Canadian consensus.
There was no consensus here . . . just brinksmanship. The nine-member school board was sacked, and a Surrey school superintendent appointed in its place, because a majority refused to submit a balanced budget as required by law.
Abbott accused the school board of being “politically motivated,” but stopped just short of saying it was doing the NDP’s dirty work to embarrass the Liberals. “That political stand is clearly at odds with the School Act and that brings us to their dismissal,” he told reporters
Fired chair Eden Haythornthwaite, a Cowichan Valley resident since 1978 with two grandchildren in the school system, says the minister’s accusations of political bias are groundless. “I am not a member of the NDP,” she told me. “In fact, three of the five trustees (who constituted the voting majority) are not members of any political party.”
Haythornthwaite says: “Our position was that in the last three budgets alone, we’ve cut almost $11 million from our operating budget and we felt we had ceased to be able to provide equal access to quality learning opportunities for all the children in Cowichan.”
Abbott says: “I respect that often school districts have difficult choices to make. There are always things that people would like to do; there are always certain special challenges that exist in each of the 60 school districts. But 59 have taken the time, the effort and the energy to ensure that they balance off.”
In fact, attempting to resolve difficult choices was at the top of the trustees’ agenda, but no one in the provincial government cared to hear about their budget issues or offer a helping hand. It would have been so easy for Abbott to parachute a team into the Cowichan Valley to work with the school board to find common ground. Instead, Abbott chose the role of the school yard bully.
“We begged them for help,” Haythornthwaite says. “We wrote a letter to the minister asking for a meeting. We wrote letters to Treasury Board and to the Premier’s Office to reinforce that we wanted their help. We would have gone to Victoria day or night.”
All they got were threats . . . no help whatsoever.
Haythornthwaite says Abbott’s firing of the trustees will be challenged in B.C. Supreme Court. In a legal opinion, Vancouver lawyer Joanna Gislason says the provincial government has a “high burden to demonstrate that the removal of duly elected trustees is justified.”
Besides balancing the budget, trustees are obligated to improve student achievement and not to discriminate against students with special needs. However, the School Act “does not prioritize one obligation over another or provide a mechanism for determining how to reconcile conflicting duties,” Gislason states.
And so the courts will decide. But what a sorry day it is when the judicial system is obliged to arbitrate the fairness of a government’s public policy edicts. M