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UPDATE: Province won't take over SD40

Stephen Bruyneel, chair of the New Westminster secondary parent advisory council, says the current financial troubles at the school district mean this is an especially important time for parents to get involved.  - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
Stephen Bruyneel, chair of the New Westminster secondary parent advisory council, says the current financial troubles at the school district mean this is an especially important time for parents to get involved.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

The Ministry of Education won't be stepping in to take over the New Westminster board of education despite a call for the resignations of the district's trustees by a parent group.

New Westminster secondary's parent advisory council has called for the school district's trustees to resign immediately and for the provincial government to take over. They also want discussions to begin to see if it's feasible to amalgamate with the Burnaby school district, and for the district to produce a projected budget for 2014-15, naming what programs and electives will be cut so parents can plan for the next school year.

But in a statement to the NewsLeader on Monday, the ministry backed the board.

"The ministry supports the efforts being made by the New Westminster board of education to manage resources, eliminate the deficit and minimize any impacts on students, staff and parents," said a spokesman.

The ministry said New West recently submitted a revised plan that would see the district be in good financial standing by June 2019, which is currently under consideration by the ministry. It also expects the board to be proactive in finding ways to deal with the deficit and will keep working with the district's staff on the issue.

Between 50 and 60 parents showed up at the PAC's monthly meeting Jan. 16. It was also attended by district assistant superintendent/secretary-treasurer Al Balanuik, board chair Jonina Campbell and other trustees.

PAC chair Stephen Bruyneel said the parents opted for the action because district officials weren't able to provide the information the parents wanted.

"It really reflects the level of concern and lack of trust in the school district. It's been going on for so long, they have no credibility," said Bruyneel.

He added the district's proposed solution to have a consultation program over the next two months and saying "trust us" was seen as unacceptable.

"Not many people are comfortable about that," said Bruyneel.

He feels the district should at least be able to provide projected numbers by the middle of February to determine what programs will be kept or cut to balance the 2014-15 budget and to begin repaying the approximately $5 million deficit it has accumulated. That would allow enough time for parents to make decisions for their children's education next school year.

Bruyneel said multiple deficits and a delay of more than 10 years in replacing NWSS has many parents questioning whether the district is able to manage its finances, and that's why they've made their motions.

A letter is being sent to the Ministry of Education with the PAC's request to take over.

"We'd sure like them to. They've done it before," said Bruyneel.

With budgets being run with either deficits or debt for 11 of 14 years, Bruyneel doesn't see how the situation can be improved without the ministry stepping in. "It's the same people for 30 years, how do we think it's going to change?"

As for merging with Burnaby, Bruyneel said the parents are proud to be from New Westminster but they wonder if it's not working or if the city's talent pool for trustees isn't big enough to attract capable trustees.

Campbell said the parents' frustration with not knowing what will programs will be offered next year is justified.

"They want to know their kids are going to get the best education out of New West secondary," said Campbell. "They just want to know what it's going to look like for their children."

She said the district needs to know what money it will be getting before it can make up its mind.

"The board is working hard to make sure we are balancing books at the end of the year, but at the same time protecting our wonderful programs," said Campbell. "I appreciate they need to know immediately, but there is a process we need to go through before we can make our decisions."

"I wouldn't feel right about putting out this information before then."

Trustee MaryAnn Mortensen admitted even though she's only in her first term she still bears responsibility for the budget deficits. However, she won't be stepping down and will continue to do what she thinks is right.

"I'm not going to resign because this is not a regular job," said Mortensen. "I am not a financial wizard [but] that is not what is required as a trustee. What is required is you advocate for public education and you oversee."

She was upset vice-chair Michael Ewen told Thursday's gathering that cutting programs would be dealt with at the board's March 14 meeting.

"That's the first I've heard about it," said Mortensen, who sympathized with the parents for wanting to find out about next year sooner than that. "We cannot wait. There are people signing up for courses, they need to know."

She would, however, be happy if the Ministry of Education gave the district a helping hand.

"I would welcome provincial oversight. I would so welcome it. We need it," said Mortensen. "Not that I don't think staff is doing their job. We need provincial oversight because we don't want to wait this long to decide on programs."

Amalgamation is a possibility that intrigues Mortensen but she wonders if it would ever happen.

"I've heard a lot about merging, and the question is would Burnaby want us? And the second question is would we retain any of our programming.? They have a different way of doing things," said Mortensen.

The district announced Friday the board will hold five budget information and consultation meetings in the community:

• Queen Elizabeth, Wednesday. Jan. 29, 6 p.m.

• Richard McBride, Thursday, Feb. 6, 6 p.m.

• John Robson, Thursday, Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m.

• NWSS, Monday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.

• To be determined, Monday, March 10, 7 p.m.

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