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Updated: Former Cow High principal replaces fired trustees

School District 79: Mike McKay appointed to oversee Cowichan schools after board removed for deficit budget
Former School District 79 Chairwoman Eden Haythornthwaite and former vice-chair Hannah Seymour speak during a gathering of supporters on June 30

Cowichan’s nine school trustees have been fired and replaced with Mike McKay, superintendent of the Surrey School District and former principal at Cowichan Secondary School.

As expected, the B.C. Government removed Cowichan’s nine-member board from their elected posts for submitting an illegal deficit budget.

“It’s regrettable that the Cowichan Valley board chose to put political advocacy ahead of their obligation to submit a balanced budget,” Education Minister George Abbott said in a statement Sunday morning.

“I know (McKay) will be a great asset to the Cowichan Valley in this role and I am very pleased that he has agreed to take on the responsibility.”

Former board vice-chair Hannah Seymour said on Monday she was still processing her removal.

“I just got my emailed pink slip on Canada Day,” she said, but added she stands behind her decision.

The board had voted 5-4 in favour of submitting what it called a “restoration budget,” which totalled almost $3.8-million more than the district is allotted by the education ministry.

“It’s unfortunate that Minister Abbott wasn’t prepared to even speak with us about the concerns we had about students in this district ­— and they’re legitimate concerns around the services we’re able to provide to our students,” Seymour said.

“I want to state very clearly that I have no political agenda. It very much is about supporting students,” she added.

“I find comments that suggest this was just a political agenda very, very offensive, and marginalize and minimize the real concerns we had as a community around public education for our children.”

The former board’s four-member minority, however, said otherwise.

“These five people ran on a platform to be fired and have accomplished that,” former trustee Amrik Prihar said in a statement Monday. “Good for them and their confused supporters, but it has accomplished absolutely zero for improving how our schools run for our students.”

“It bothers me to no end that I cannot be a school trustee anymore,” former trustee Cathy Schmidt told the News Leader Pictorial on Monday.

“It bothers me to no end that a political agenda won over kids.”

But Schmidt admitted she’s also relieved that the district will be in the hands of McKay now.

“I’m glad that we’re no longer the board in control of kids’ futures,” she said. “Quite frankly I don’t believe the table should be so politically charged. We weren’t functioning as a board of nine. It was a board of five, with four token trustees sitting there.”

It’s still unclear how long McKay will serve as official trustee of Cowichan, but the ministry has confirmed it will not exceed November 2014, when the next civic election is scheduled, and he’ll be conducting district business, such as board meetings, in public. McKay will be paid a daily rate, to be invoiced to School District 79, up to $50,000 annually.

“I think he was a great choice,” Schmidt said. “He’s a huge leader in education and he did great things in the Cowichan Valley when he was principal at Cowichan secondary. I think he’s a great fit and will get the district refocused — and make it a positive place for education again.”

The former board’s five-trustee majority, however, are not likely to go without a fight. They’ve obtained a legal opinion that suggests they could challenge their removal in court.

“Faced with conflicting obligations, the trustees in this case can chose to privilege their obligation to improve student achievement over their obligation to provide a balanced budget,” writes lawyer Joanna Gislason in the opinion. “There is no legal certainty that this decision would be found by a court to justify their removal.”

A press release from School District 79 last week notes that “individual trustees will now proceed to follow up this opinion with action.”

Former board chairwoman Eden Haythornthwaite said that could mean paying for the legal expenses out-of-pocket, but noted “we’ve had some offers of assistance for this.”

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