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Province fires Cowichan Valley school board for passing deficit

B.C. Education Minister George Abbott fired the school board for District 79 after it failed to produce balanced figures by a Saturday deadline.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A school board in Cowichan Valley, B.C., has been expelled over the weekend after not passing a balanced budget.

The province's Education Minister, George Abbott, fired the board for District 79 after it failed to produce balanced figures by Saturday's deadline, instead opting to pass a restorative budget with a $3.77-million shortfall.

The board passed the budget 5-4 as part of what some members said is an aim to bring the district's funding back up to pre-2001 levels.

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It is only the fourth time in 40 years a school board has been fired by the province, and the second time one in Cowichan Valley has been axed following a similar situation in 1985.

Mr. Abbott has appointed Surrey School District superintendent Mike McKay as the official trustee for the district until the next election in 2014, praising him as a respected 30-year veteran of the education system.

Mr. McKay once worked as a school principal in Cowichan Valley and is now tasked with working alongside district staff to set a budget.

According to the School Act, if a balanced budget is not passed by the board of trustees, funding from the province cannot be transferred to the district.

Trustee Ryan Bruce voted against the deficit budget and said those who voted in favour of it are playing politics with the education system.

"I guess the split or the difference in opinion comes around those that want to send a message to government and those of us that want to work constructively to find solutions and continue to be a voice for education in the valley," he said.

Mr. Bruce contends the district has about 2,000 fewer students than it did 10 years ago and a funding increase of about $2,000 per student.

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He said while he's disappointed to have been removed, he supports Mr. Abbott's decision.

"His hands are tied. I think we have submitted a deficit budget therefore money cannot flow, if money does not flow then next September there's no money to run the education system in the valley," he said.

"He's really got no choice but to remove us and appoint somebody who will follow the law, follow the school act and submit a balanced budget."

But Board of Education Chair Eden Haythornthwaite said funding levels are still below where they need to be and where they were more than a decade ago.

Ms. Haythornthwaite said the budget passed was initially set up to ensure the district would have money to operate as usual, then 20 restorative measures were worked in.

She said her decision was political, and that's not a bad thing.

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"I don't see any contradiction between working hard for our children and using my position as a politician to do that," she said. "I don't know what else I would do, I think wishing upon a star would hardly qualify."

During a conference call, Mr. Abbott said the board is politically motivated, but stopped short of accusing it of working on behalf of a particular political group.

"That political stand is clearly at odds with the school act and that brings us to their dismissal today," said Mr. Abbott.

Ms. Haythornthwaite said members of the board are planning to appeal their removal.

Mr. Abbott said he is not concerned by attempts to overturn his decision.

"I am entirely comfortable that we are operating within the bounds of the school act here in dismissing this board," said Mr. Abbott.

The Canadian Press

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