By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

Two and a half months into the job, and following a stream of complaints and conflicts involving district staff, board trustees, school stakeholders and Indigenous communities, the province’s new education minister has appointed two special advisors to review governance practices of the Prince George District school board.

“Concerns had been raised regarding the Prince George School District, ranging from relations among partners and rightsholders, to lower student outcomes,” said Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside in an emailed response to questions on Feb. 17. We have heard concerns about conflicts between staff and trustees, and questions about governance practices, and relationships with stakeholders and Indigenous communities.”

Two special advisors, appointed under the School Act, will evaluate the board’s governance practices as they pertain to roles and responsibilities, culture and practices, and relationships with district management, education partners and local Indigenous communities.

“Respect and collaboration are at the core of B.C.’s education system,” Whiteside said. “I have appointed special advisors to find out what is happening and to recommend any further steps that need to be taken.”

A review will be completed by June 1 of this year.

The advisors will have the power to enter schools and district offices, inspect board records, and review board activities. Board staff will be compelled to assist, and the government will have the power to replace the school board with an official trustee if necessary.

Both specialists in Indigenous education and education leadership, Kory Wilson is executive director of Indigenous initiatives and partnerships at B.C Institute of Technology, a lawyer, as well as, a member of the Quadra Island We Wai Kai Nation, while Catherine McGregor is associate professor and associate dean of research at the University of Victoria’s faculty of education with expertise in social justice leadership and policy enactment.

They will assist the board in establishing best practices for culturally appropriate board governance, responding to systemic racism in school communities, and recruiting and evaluating senior board staff, among other things.

“I’m confident their review will help us put student outcomes back at the forefront of education in the district,” Whiteside stated in the email.

School board and district staff declined comment, referring all inquiries to the ministry.

The review process will also consider whether the board complied with legal requirements and trustees adhered to the board’s code of ethics.

“I think it goes to show that this minister does have serious concerns on how (the district) is operating,” said McLeod Deputy Chief Jayde Duranleau.

“They’re listening. I’m just very happy about that,” said Lheidli T’enneh Chief Clay Pountney.

About 30 per cent of the students in the district are Indigenous from more than 70 distinct communities, including about 70 Lheidli students and an unknown number from McLeod Lake. The district operates on Lheidli and McLeod Lake territories.

“It has been about four years of looking at the district and looking at our grad rates (and) the support systems for our youth,” said Pountney.

“It has been about four years of looking at the district and looking at our grad rates (and) the support systems for our youth,” said Pountney.

According to a November 2019 ministry report on Aboriginal student outcomes in the Prince George District, the graduation rate for Indigenous students in the district was 53 per cent (49 per cent for males) within five years of Grade 8, versus 81 per cent for non-indigenous students in 2018-2019.

Graduation within six years of Grade 8 during the same time frame was 65 per cent for Indigenous students (60 per cent for males) and 87 per cent for non-Indigenous students. Non-Indigenous graduation rates were similar for both genders.

“One of the first things we looked at”¦ was to see if the support and the supporting dollars were reaching where they’re supposed to reach,” said Pountney. “And we weren’t getting a definitive answer.”

In January, dissatisfied with the district’s responses, McLeod Lake and Lheidli jointly requested a forensic audit of all funds paid to Prince George for Indigenous education over the past seven years.

Two weeks later, the board shared complaints by its staff regarding Lheidli.

“”¦ the Lheidli T’enneh Nation has raised concerns about the interactions with district staff it found to be disrespectful. District staff have also raised concerns about the relationship,” wrote Prince George School Board Chair Trent Derrick in a letter to Pountney dated Jan. 29.

To repair the relationship, the board had engaged a conflict management consultant to work with the nation and the school district towards a “resolution of issues in a collaborative and cohesive manner that”¦ benefit(s) students,” wrote Derrick, who was elected board chair last fall.

“There was a clear identified conflict going on,” said Duranleau.

Lheidli and McLeod Lake agreed to participate in the conflict resolution process.

“Then, all of a sudden, I get a phone call from the minister saying that these special advisers are stepping in,” Duranleau said.

“The ideal outcome is that there’s accountability on all fronts to make sure the dollars are supporting our youth,” said Pountney.

If the money is going where it’s supposed to, then we have to start looking somewhere else – is it governance? ” Pountney asked.

“We have to start picking that apart to get to the bottom of why this isn’t working,” he said.

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]