Outgoing school board chair Paul McManus has a warning for voters considering choosing trustee candidates who have expressed opposition to the SOGI 123 resource teachers use to combat bullying of LGBTQ students.
“We have a ‘group’ of people running for school trustee that will not be welcome in our schools,” McManus said in a letter to The Progress. “Let me say that again. They will not be welcome in our schools.”
The debate over the SOGI 123 resource has proved to be increasingly divisive with four candidates overtly coming out against the anti-bullying tool, and a larger group of candidates coming out strongly in favour of it.
The issue over the program began one year ago with an Oct. 23, 2017 Facebook post by trustee Barry Neufeld.
“At the risk of being labelled a bigoted homophobe, I have to say that I support traditional family values,” Neufeld said at the start of the long post, which he ended by saying that if SOGI 123 is what Canadian values are becoming “count me out,” and that he’d rather live in “Russia, or Paraguay, which recently had the guts to stand up to these radical cultural nihilists.”
After Neufeld’s Facebook post, his public position against SOGI 123 hardened, and the issue has spread to other communities. The BCTF has filed a human rights complaint against him, the Minister of Education has spoken strongly about Neufeld, and many have called for his resignation.
What also happened is that school administrators contacted the board to say that Neufeld was not welcome in schools, because his presence made many LGBTQ students, teachers and allies uncomfortable.
After an in camera meeting, Neufeld agreed to step back from some of his duties as a trustee and for most of the last year, he no longer attended schools.
McManus said that the same thing will happen if Neufeld is re-elected. And candidates Darrell Furgason, Kaethe Jones and Erma Vietorisz will similarly not be welcome in schools. Incumbent trustee Heather Maahs has supported Neufeld to some degree, but has distanced herself from the four firm anti-SOGI 123 candidates.
The four have been circulating a flyer with the words “Vote to Protect Innocence!”
Trustees do not, however, have a critical role in the schools, it is largely symbolic as they serve in a liaison role with the district. Some trustees spend more time than others in schools, but McManus said the link between the schools and the board is important and would be broken if elected trustees can’t visit.
“You will be really removed from what is going on,” he said.
Given Minister Rob Fleming’s strong rebuke of Neufeld’s statements, McManus was asked what would happen if a strong anti-SOGI 123 board was elected.
Would Fleming fire the board as is the minister’s right?
“If they are all of a sudden going against ministry directives in the school district, it’s definitely a possibility,” McManus said in an interview, admitted that was speculation.
“If this group were to make up the majority of our school board, it would have a significant and very negative impact on our public schools,” he wrote in his letter. “And while this situation will most impact students, staff and parents that are members of the LGBTQ community, don’t kid yourself – it will negatively impact ALL staff and students.”
If Neufeld is re-elected, and if other anti-SOGI 123 candidates are elected, McManus said he was concerned the matter will carry on indefinitely.
“What do these people plan to do?” he asked. “How is this going to improve student achievement, which is our main priority?”
McManus encouraged parents to vote, and also to particularly choose candidates with students in the district.
“We … need better representation on our school board of parents who currently have children in the public school system,” he wrote. “On the last four school boards in Chilliwack, representing 28 school trustee positions, there were only two or three trustees, including myself, that had children in our schools at the time they were on the board. That’s not diversity folks.”