Board ‘dysfunction’ cited in trustee’s departure

John Henry Harter, Chilliwack school board, School district 33, school trustee roles and responsibility

Three years of infighting has kept one school trustee from seeking re-election.

But outgoing trustee John Henry Harter hopes the surge of new candidates running will clear the air so Chilliwack board of education can get back to working together.

Harter’s goal as trustee was to improve public education, but doesn’t feel the board has been able to do that this last term due to the back-and-forth bickering among trustees.

“It’s been difficult with this board to feel like we’re moving forward and making real gains,” he said. “I think the biggest problem over the last three years is the difference of opinions on what the role of school trustee is. We have spent far too much time arguing and debating issues around who’s in charge and what our role is.

“It’s detracted from what we’re supposed to be doing, and I think, in a lot of ways, the largest, most important goal of increasing student achievement has been lost.”

The school act, which is legislated by the B.C. Ministry of Education, states trustees are responsible for setting and maintaining the school district’s budget; for creating policy to guide the school district; and for hiring a superintendent.

However, Chilliwack’s trustees have repeatedly questioned their role. In two board self evaluations completed (one in 2009 and the other in 2010) the board identified governance and policy related to the roles and responsibilities of trustees as an area for growth.

The 2010 evaluation stated, “we will be working together to build a shared understanding of our role in supporting learning.”

Harter said that shared understanding never came to pass.

“The whole question of who’s in charge and what a trustee’s role is, that wasn’t a debate in my first three years. But this past term, that never got resolved. It’s become part of almost every discussion, whether you want it to be or not. It becomes very tiring.”

Harter, who will be obtaining his PhD in history this year, said he also won’t have enough time to commit to being a school trustee once he obtains full-time employment at a university.

Dr. Sheryl MacMath, a professor with the teacher education program at the University of the Fraser Valley, has been watching Chilliwack’s board of education off and on for the last two years.

She’s noticed the division and believes the district as a whole has suffered because of it.

“All this backstabbing and infighting does is undermine the authority of the board and given that you’re on the board, you’re undermining your own authority,” said MacMath, who teaches a course on governance and social reform.

“It also undermines the faith that a community has in its own board … it creates a sense of oh my goodness my board doesn’t know what’s going on and if I have a board that’s divided, how are decisions going to be made?”

MacMath believes district operations have slowed as a result.

Boards are responsible for making decisions on school closures, property management, enrollment, class sizes, school calendar, student records, literacy plans and administrative directives.

“It’s a massive amount of stuff that has to get done,” said MacMath. “But if you try to both make decisions and then actually administer or enact them, you don’t have enough time. And when there’s a slow down in decisions being made, their ability to enact policy and move forward on initiatives set forward by the community or the Ministry of Education are slowed down because their ability to make decisions has been hampered.

“The confusion and lack of direction from your board also slows down the administration’s ability to get the job done as well.”

With 24 candidates seeking trusteeship, 18 new faces, MacMath believes change could be forthcoming.

“If you’re choosing to be elected on a board and you want to work on a board, you need to recognize you are part of a board and you need to work with them as opposed to against them,” said MacMath.

“We need to have strong voices we can rely on.”

kbartel@theprogress.com

twitter.com/schoolscribe33

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