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A hand across political lines

New Westminster school trustee Casey Cook -
New Westminster school trustee Casey Cook
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Many political watchers believed pigs would fly before a Voice New Westminster trustee would chair a school board committee.

YVR better check its radar for porcine sightings.

Along with its regular board meetings trustees have met as a committee of the whole for preliminary discussions on issues. But on Tuesday, the board decided to split that committee into two, although all trustees will continue to sit on both. David Phelan will chair the education committee while Casey Cook will head the operations and finance committee.

Phelan is one of four labour-backed trustees that hold the majority on the board. But Cook has run the last two elections under the Voice banner. Relations between the two sides have been far from harmonious for several years. That's why it was a bit of a surprise when chair Jonina Campbell asked Cook to lead the committee.

Splitting the committees was a concept suggested by new superintendent/CEO John Gaiptman. Campbell was simply endorsing that direction, said Cook.

"The chair has responded. I guess they thought it was a fit and we needed to do more broad based-decision making and input," said Cook. "All I know is she asked me if I would be interested and I said, 'of course.' We need to have input from everybody."

Campbell said recognizing leadership in other trustees makes the board stronger. Phelan is a teacher in the Coquitlam school district and Cook is a former city councillor and mayoralty candidate. They will deal with senior administration in managing agenda items for those committees.

"We have a variety of skills and interests on our board, and any one of our board members can bring those skills and talent to our board," said Campbell. "The board has gone through a really great transition in terms of building a sense of cooperation and a recognition that by working together we're a much stronger board. I think we've turned a page in that people are willing to acknowledge everyone there is asking good questions. I'm trying to set a tone in that we can [debate] in a respectful and productive way."

The board also passed several policy bylaws Tuesday. They included changes to how the district deals with suspensions.

Disciplinary action for students in kindergarten to Grade 7 will now be dealt with by teams at individual schools and not by a district review committee. That committee will no longer have district parent advisory council representatives on it. Gaiptman said their role should be to act as advocates for the families and not make judgments.

"They were on the wrong side of the table. I would prefer they were supporting the family at that time," said Gaiptman.

New rules were also adopted to limit election campaigning in schools. Gaiptman said the new rules won't preclude all-candidates meetings, but will prohibit single candidates coming in.

"There's nothing wrong with campaigning, but let's campaign away from the schools," said Gaiptman. "We're looking at trying to handle ourselves with integrity at all times."

Other changes were made to the district's fees and book deposit policies. They were developed to help facilitate budgetary changes needed to balance the books for the 2014-15 school year.

That budget is expected to be finalized Tuesday. The district needed to shave $2.7 million to make it possible. Measures include reducing teaching staff by the equivalent of 15.35 full-time teachers. They are also chopping 7.5 clerical positions, four maintenance jobs, three education assistants or community youth workers, and a school administrator.

"This is not a district that has excesses. Each and every one of those cuts hurt. Each and everyone go into the fabric of our education," said Gaiptman. "That is by far the toughest part of the budget is knowing we will be losing expertise."

Gaiptman said there's been good turnout for the four previous public budget meetings this month. The public will get one more shot to make their views known on Tuesday.

While the goal is to make a final decision that night so the district can plan its staffing for the next school year, Gaiptman said it is not mandatory for the board.

"There may be some things that will be tweaked that night but rest assured we will be required to pass a balanced budget," said Cook. "I would think we would be headed substantially in the direction he is proposing," said Cook.

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