Talk easy, cutting trustees more difficult

"School trustees are once again contemplating reducing their numbers as part of the ongoing cuts..."

School trustees are once again contemplating reducing their numbers as part of the ongoing cuts needed to offset reduced  enrolment and revenue. Talking about eliminating trustees is easy; actually to doing something about it is another matter.

The issue was last seriously addressed in 2004, when trustees decided to stick with the current system. In 1999, the board asked the province to reduce trustee numbers from nine to seven and the number of wards from six to two, but the NDP government of the day didn’t act on the request.

The review nine years ago stemmed from a recommendation by a provincial adviser reviewing district operations that there should be seven or even five trustees elected at large. Adviser Jack Fleming, a former school district superintendent and deputy minister of education, was appointed days after trustees called for the resignation of then Education Minister Christy Clark, a form of non-confidence vote that seems to follow the now premier around.

When Fleming visited almost a decade ago, the district was seething in the wake of a board decision to close three middle and two elementary schools, and an unsuccessful legal challenge by the City of Trail to the closure of Trail Middle School.

Although he didn’t come up with much in the way of solutions to the district’s fiscal squeeze, Fleming did find the district’s political culture in need of an overhaul.

He  reported that the ward system “provides for immediate direct representation and accountability.” but it also “precludes trustees from taking an overall approach to the management of the district.

“Issues cannot be debated and decided rationally when every issue is analyzed to see whose area is being affected positively or negatively, and deal-making is carried on to ensure that every area gets its share, whether it make sense or not.”

During his two weeks in Kootenay Columbia, Fleming found a parochial swamp where “local warfare” is waged among communities, interest groups, trustees, and district employees.

“Attempts to conduct meetings to consider broad-scale issues across jurisdictions are often unproductive, as rivalries and suspicions influence the attitudes of participants. Evidence was presented that this occurs in the broader context, and not just in the operation of the school district . . .

“Any suggestion for change is immediately analyzed to see which area of the district is being advantaged, and which disadvantaged . . . There is little interest in examining the evidence that would suggest one change or another, or determining the logical outcome for any issue. Such matters are overwhelmed by the local reaction based on perception that one area is (gaining) at the expense of others.

“Public reactions by elected leaders are volatile and accusatory, with little regard for the facts of the case. It appears that public leaders seldom check out the facts with each other, or share background information, or attempt to understand contexts before they launch defensive counter-attacks through the media. Fierce defence of one’s own territory seems to be the order of the day.”

He said this climate “creates attitudes that make it very difficult for the school board to develop a clear perspective for the district as a whole. The board, of course, is expected to act in the best interests of children throughout the entire district, but it appears to be alone in attempting this approach.”

Some things have improved during the ensuring years. The leadership of the teachers’ union is much more business-like, as has been Rossland city council during the current debate over school closures in that community. Certainly, there has been no talk of wasting taxpayers money on an unwinnable legal battle with the school district.

As for trustees, although there was a lengthy public consultation conducted over a period of years before the recent school closure decisions were made, newspaper accounts of the final board debate didn’t indicate any greater level of analytical rigour than in the ones I witnessed a decade ago.

I don’t know if electing fewer trustees in a different way would improve the situation.  Electing five or seven trustees at large would be the simplest manner to effect change, although the savings to the district would be paltry, perhaps $60,000 if four trustees were eliminated.

Trying to reduce the number of trustees while maintaining a ward system worthy of the name is impossible. Even with nine trustees, one of the six wards – Warfield to Blueberry – doesn’t represent any recognizable community of interests, and there are serious inequities in terms of representation by population among the remaining wards.

The last time out, trustees voted 7-2 in favour of the status quo, with only former MLA and then Castlegar trustee Chris D’Arcy and Trail trustee Lorraine Manning supporting change.

Interestingly, while the gymnasiums of local schools back then filled up with angry citizens opposed to  closures, only 10 people showed up a year later for a public meeting in Trail on revamping the school board.

Raymond Masleck is a retired Trail Times        reporter.