Kootenay Lake school trustees rejected the idea of hiring an external consultant to review their decision making process Tuesday, but struck a series of committees they hope will generate greater community involvement in the district.
The board declined to act on a request by Trafalgar Middle School’s parent advisory committee for an independent review in the wake of controversy over whether to add another French immersion class.
Instead, they approved the creation of six “community engagement committees” — one for each region of the district, or “family of schools” — to be composed of trustees, principals, teachers, parents, and CUPE staff. They will meet four times a year and host two “engagement sessions” with students, parents, staff, and community members.
According to their terms of reference, the committees will “inform the board regarding hopes and expectations for students in the community [and] inform the broader community regarding current trends and issues in public education.”
“My hope is these committees will provide an opportunity for all people whether they have children in school or not,” superintendent Jeff Jones says. “They’ll tell the board what people are thinking.”
He says the committees will provide a “respectful dialogue” around issues such as programming, grade configurations, and technology.
And while they likely would have been created even without the heated debate over French immersion, he feels they could have channelled the discussion more constructively.
“There have been a number of accusations about some of our senior staff,” Jones says. “They haven’t been respectful of trying establish a meaningful working relationship. I’m very concerned about that, how to have this kind of dialogue in our community.”
In deciding against the outside review of their decision-making, trustees expressed concern about the potential cost.
“If we had that kind of money in the budget, I would rather put it in a classroom,” said East Shore trustee Verna Mayers-Mackenzie. “Sometimes I’ve gone for consultants. This time we really don’t have the money.”
“My experience is that external teams don’t know the community and get very polarized examples of what groups want,” Creston trustee Annette Hambler added. “Let’s give [the committees] a chance to be successful before hiring people we can’t afford who may make things worse.”
Trafalgar parent advisory committee president Robin Woodbridge said afterward he thought someone locally could have done the review “at very minimal cost.”
However, while he was disappointed their idea was shot down, he was encouraged by discussion of more parental involvement — another thing they’ve been calling for.
“As far as I’m concerned, there hasn’t been much of that,” he said. “Communication has been horrible. Maybe now we’ll see some changes. Hopefully, anyway. We will continue to hold them accountable.”
He wasn’t sure, however, how effective the community committees might be.
The district decided not to expand its French immersion offerings at the middle school, despite pressure from parents. More than 90 students signed up for the program, which is normally capped at 60.
Parent cut short
A Nelson parent says she was taken aback at being cut short at Tuesday’s school board meeting and told she was “embarrassing” herself by persisting.
Trish Dehnel, an outspoken advocate for an additional French immersion class in Nelson, was reading aloud a letter critical of the district’s handling of the situation when chair Mel Joy asked her repeatedly to stop.
“I didn’t like the way I was treated,” Dehnel said afterward. “We’re invited to a public meeting and our thoughts aren’t even shared with the board.”
She sent the full letter to trustees yesterday, with the appended note: “When I am told that I am embarrassing myself by speaking competently about an issue that impacts my child, I feel that it is you that does not understand.”
However, Joy says she only jumped in because she felt a senior staff member was being attacked.
“The board believes in hearing from the public and all members are encouraged to speak,” she told the Star. “[Dehnel] was giving a very positive report until she mentioned a staff member, at which time I asked her to stop.”
When Dehnel continued, “I made the comment about it being embarrassing. I meant the situation.”
Joy says she feels badly how things unfolded, “but I will support our staff and board members always to ensure their reputation and integrity is respected.”
She adds she had no issue with the presentation’s length nor its subject.
Susan Wilson, of the district parent advisory council, who was present, said she was disappointed with Joy’s reaction, and called for a written apology.
“As a long-time board meeting attendee I’ve never witnessed such contempt for the public and hope I never witness such treatment again,” she said.
“The suggestion Trish was ‘embarrassing herself’ only shows a true lack of compassion or tolerance for one of this district’s parent leaders.”