by Andru McCracken

RMG file photo 2016

It’s got the editor of the Prince George Citizen in a huff and sitting school trustees passionately opposed, but in spite of their interventions against the move, the Robson Valley has a newly elected position. Starting in October, locals will elect a local trustee to the School District 57.

The new system is called a ward system and the decision to implement it was made by the Minister of Education in Victoria.

“We are making changes to give residents of Mackenzie, Valemount and surrounding rural areas better representation at the board table,” said an email from the ministry’s spokesperson.

The request was made by the District of Mackenzie and supported by the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, Village of Valemount and Village of McBride. Residents in these communities say they have felt underrepresented on the board.

In the new system, Mackenzie will have its own seat at the board table and the Canoe and Robson Valleys will share one.

The Ministry said these rural schools face unique challenges. “Allowing for trustees to represent those areas will better address those challenges.”

Perhaps the clearest articulation of why having a local representative matters came from current trustee Sharel Warrington at an all candidates forum in Valemount on October 30, 2014, before the last election.

“I definitely favor the idea and the opportunity for rural representation from the valley. Even though we do all advocate for your work at our table, we aren’t living in your valley, we don’t have that clear view of the issues. You are incredibly isolated from the district. It is sad to say that, but having driven all the way in today – four hours – it is a long way. It is hard for trustees to get to your schools and talk to your PACs and keep that constant relationship building that needs to happen.”

“I think it is in the best interest of the community to have a representative at the board table. Yes, they will also have the larger district view as well.”

All three trustee candidates who attended the forum voiced a similar sentiment, including Brenda Hooker and board chair Tim Bennett.

However, when later approached by Mayor of Mackenzie Pat Crook, to support his bid for a rural representative, the board unanimously voted down the idea.

Bennett explained his change in position.

“As we started looking into the matter the cost of it was a factor for me,” he said. “In my opinion the funds could be spent in the classrooms supporting our rural communities. Having a trustee participate remotely using our current system also proved to be more challenging than we anticipated.”

Bennett said he also heard challenges and concerns from other districts with a similar system.

When given an opportunity to provide input to the Minister of Education, Bennett said they laid out the pros and cons of the decision.

“We did voice some concerns to the minister. One being the timeline,” said Bennett. “We knew there some bylaw changes that had to be done.”

Bennett said that although the concerns about providing proportional representation on the board were raised (ie: Godbout’s concerns about Mackenzie and the Robson Valley having an outsized impact on the board), they didn’t reflect board thinking as a whole and weren’t forwarded to the minister.

Local Reaction

McBride’s Parent Advisory Council chair, Karen Dube was pleased with the news.

“I think it’s great news,” she said.

Dube has raised concerns about the potential closure of McBride’s elementary school.

“That’s an issue that is still front and centre at the school level, and council,” she said. “This will help ensure that it doesn’t happen or if it does that it happens with community consultation.”

When asked who would run for the position, Dube said it is too soon to say.

“People have barely heard about it,” she said. “Between Valemount and McBride we should be able to come up with a strong group of candidates. People know how important the schools are to the success of the community.”

Prince George Reaction

Neil Godbout, editor of the Prince George Citizen, described the new situation as Prince George being shafted.

“From a purely democratic perspective, Prince George parents just got hosed. Mackenzie and the Robson Valley schools make up less than eight per cent of the School District 57 student population but their two votes now represent 29 per cent of the voting power on the seven-member school board,” said Godbout in an editorial last week.

He said the communities have been ‘crying for years’ for the change, but he was unsure how having just two of seven seats would help either community.

Mayor Crook said most school districts use a similar system. He isn’t particularly critical of this school board, but believes local representation will make for better decisions.

“This board has done more for rural schools than many boards in the past,” he said.

“I don’t see it as a big change, but it gives communities a real time voice for the board.”

Area H (Robson Valley) Regional District Representative Danielle Alan said the school board can expect to get great candidates from the Robson Valley and Mackenzie.

“They will be representing the school board as a whole, but bring with them the unique rural perspective for some real sound decision making around the table.”

“I find this a very positive move. We do have something to offer,” she said.

Alan said school board members regularly go into the schools in Prince George.

“With the schools out here they aren’t as aware of what is going on, until it is brought to their attention,” she said. “It could be made more robust.”

She doesn’t expect radical changes as a result of local representation, however.

“There are a lot of restraints, they don’t have a huge amount of discretion,” she said. “But decisions can only benefit by having people of diverse experiences and background.”

While Bennett, the sitting board chair, said he wasn’t in favour of the decision, the School District is now preparing for the changes required.

He believes that the newly elected trustees will be able to do a good job.

“Once you are elected as a trustee, regardless of where our address is, we’re responsible for all the students and staff across the district,” he said.

What’s involved

Bennett said there is a lot of work facing next year’s trustees regardless of who is elected and from where.

“2019 is a really big year for public education, we’re entering teacher bargaining, we are entering the rural funding formula review which can have huge implications for our communities so to have rural representatives on the board being advocates and helping us advocate to government is really important thing.”

Bennett said for people interested in the position there are good resources at the BC School Trustee Association website.

“If anyone from Valemount or McBride or Dunster is interested in running for trustee I’m more than willing to meet and talk about the roles and responsibilities,” he said.

Trustees make about $15,000 per year and are expected to work between 10 and 20 hours per week.