Opinion

COLUMN: A four-point plan for saving New Westminster School District

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For a good laugh—or perhaps a cry—you could read through the columns I've written about the New Westminster School District over the years.

I've wrung my hands so much, fretting over the way SD40 has limped from one disaster to another.

It's hard to believe, but this year is on track to being one of the worst in memory.

The school district has an accumulated debt of more than $5 million and has cut teachers and support staff, with more painful cuts inevitable.

Tight belts and trimming are a fact of life at any school district, but these should have been avoided.

Bluntly put, SD40 has failed. As always, there are explanations and explanations and more explanations. Eventually, even someone who doesn't even follow local news can recognize a failure.

A couple months ago my nephew, who goes to high school in North Vancouver, said, "I heard your high school is running out of paper"—a reference to the fact New Westminster secondary's operating budget for 2013/14 was already in the red because it had been slashed from $800,000 to an unrealistic $65,000.

My nephew's words knocked the wind out of me.

It's embarassing. We've already got a high school that looks like rubbish that we're trying to replace. But now we can't even afford to run it?

People who follow school district issues simply throw their hands up in the air. It's rare to find an issue so confounding. Why is our school district so unsuccessful?

I know many of the trustees on the board, and find them to be smart and passionate about public education.

But we need a fix.

So, seeing as this is a year in which we'll have a civic election in November, here is what I'd like to see happen:

1. Long-time trustees retire. Michael Ewen has 34 years on the board, and James Janzen has about 20. They deserve praise for their hard work and service, but let's have some new faces with a fresh perspective on the challenges.

2. The New Westminster & District Labour Council (NWDLC) changes its vetting process for candidates it chooses to endorse. A labour endorsement for trustee almost guarantees a spot on school board. With great power comes great responsibility. It's reasonable for the NWDLC to choose candidates whose views align with those of the labour movement. But those candidates should also have the skills desperately needed for an effective board. Just like building a corporate or non-profit board, SD40 would benefit from people with expertise in finance, strategy, and operations, for instance. Today, three of the four labour trustees are teachers. It would be great to see more breadth.

3. More parents get involved from the high school. The NWSS PAC meetings typically see a turnout that can be counted on two hands. With a school population of about 2,300, the parent pool is hugely untapped. More parent involvement leads to more accountability and opportunity for information sharing.  Capacity is built, with more people engaged in schools and school district affairs. And over time, there's a larger pool of talent and passion to draw future trustees. Or at least more informed voters.

4. A strong, visionary superintendent is hired. At the end of January, the superintendent's job opens up as John Woudzia moves on to work at Vancouver Community College. He's been at the helm eight years, so with a new person comes an opportunity for fresh eyes and with luck, a powerful vision for how to transform this organization from loser to winner.

And in the end, if all these things were to come to pass, and the school district continued to be plagued by problems to an unreasonable degree, there can only be one conclusion: running schools in this modern age is too onerous for a small school district to manage. We must amalgamate with a neighbour, perhaps Burnaby.

If they'll have us.

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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