School board misses opportunity: Trustee

The New Westminster school board missed "a perfect opportunity" to come together when it appointed two trustees—who are also teachers—to the lead positions, says a trustee.

With chair James Janzen stepping down, long-time trustee Michael Ewen, a Surrey teacher who had been the vice chair, was acclaimed to take over for 2013. Jonina Campbell, a teacher in Richmond first elected to the board last November, was chosen to be vice chair by secret ballot, beating out second-term trustee Casey Cook.

Ewen, Campbell, Janzen and David Phelan, a teacher in Coquitlam, were endorsed by the New Westminster and District Labour Council while Cook, Lisa Graham and MaryAnn Mortensen, who nominated Cook on Tuesday, ran under the Voice New Westminster banner.

"Given the times and the challenges we face and given the need for this board to come together, I let my name stand forward," said Cook. "They have the majority, and I understand that. It's not a mystery they would get the chair. I thought the times and the circumstances and the need for working together called for joint decision making and joint access to decision making so I let my name stand for vice chair. I thought it was a perfect opportunity for us to come together. However it's very clear it's about power and it's about control, and not about capitalizing on joint opportunities on decision making."

Cook said the board's chair and vice chair liaise with district superintendent John Woudzia and secretary-treasurer Brian Sommerfeldt on setting priorities and agendas for board meetings.

"I don't think this shows balance," said Cook. "This gives the distinct impression that special interests are in charge, and given the times we're in, in battling a deficit I think it was very important to give off a signal that wasn't the case, that we need balance on the board."

Ewen sees the situation differently.

He says Cook—a former city councillor and mayoralty candidate—misunderstands what the board chair and vice chair do. He said trustees holding those positions can't direct staff on what to do. Ewen said the position of chair isn't like a mayor—who gets paid six figures to run a city—since the chair only makes a little more than a trustee.

"Casey still may have the mindset of mayor and council, because Casey doesn't understand the chair of the board is just a facilitating role," said Ewen. "In many ways it's a pain to me because as chair of the board I lose my voice because I have to represent the board."

Ewen said he might have considered Cook as vice chair if he had raised the possibility a few days before the meeting.

"I was gobsmacked that Casey actually had that desire," said Ewen. "I don't know if I would agree with it, but I would have considered having Casey there … I'm tired of the labeling. I've been elected chair 10, 15 times. I was elected by acclamation. That means everybody was on board."

He also doesn't agree with Cook's contention there's a lot of divisiveness on the board.

"It's just cheap politics. Ninety-nine per cent of our decisions are made consensually. There are not a litany of decisions that have failed on a 4-3 vote," said Ewen.

Cook said having two teachers as chair and vice chair could create a problem if an issue arises where being a teacher puts them in conflict of interest.

"What is more important than a conflict is the public perception of a conflict of interest," said Cook.

Ewen criticized Cook for bringing up the conflict issue after Tuesday's vote.

"If there is a conflict of interest the laws are very clear and we have a clear handle on it," said Ewen. "It has not been a problem, and the raising of these problems that have not been a problem by duly elected people is just cheap politics."

Ewen said having Jonina Campbell serve as vice chair will help in the transition of the district's leadership.

"James and I aren't going to be around forever. I'm not even sure I'm going to run next time," said Ewen.

Trustee Dave Phelan will be the board's representative with the B.C. School Trustees Association and Campbell will be the alternate. Trustee MaryAnn Mortensen will serve on the B.C. Public Schools Employers Association with trustee Lisa Graham being the alternate.

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