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COLUMN: A prescription to transform the New Westminster School District
Another week of bad news at the school district.
This time, we’re tackling the $2.8M deficit that apparently appeared out of nowhere, after the fiscal year was done.
Bad news like this is sucking the life out of SD40, and it’s time to change course. If you Google search New Westminster School District you’ll find SD40’s home page, some innocuous pages, then some negative-sounding headlines about the deficit and this great one: “New Westminster: A school district in turmoil.”
To find any “good news” you’ll have to scroll through for quite some time.
Do the same with Surrey, Burnaby, Coquitlam school districts and it’s all either good or neutral.
To those who have watched school district affairs a while, this comes as no surprise.
But it’s not acceptable. Not for the school district, and especially not for the kids. Why? Because it means all we’re doing is fighting, figuring out how to pay the bills and put a roof over students’ heads, rather than striving for excellence and creating happy kids.
We all lose.
First thing’s first. The deficit will be conquered—with a fair bit of pain involved—but the more important question is what the hell happened?
No explanation can mar the fact someone screwed up big time. Either that person should be out of a job, or disciplined, and if there are systems that need to be fixed, fix them. It’s really that simple. If our financial officer has too much on his plate, what with a business company and education foundation to oversee, then hire some support.
Once we get that sorted, there are two fundamental problems at SD40 that, if addressed, will put the school district on the right track:
The school district has no sense of direction
There’s no strategic plan for SD40. Buried under “policies” on the website are a few vague ramblings, but that’s it. Back in 2001, a consultant recommended the school district draft one, but it’s still missing.
A strategic plan is where we should start. If you don’t spell out where you want to go, chances are someone else—or random chance—will decide.
The school district isn’t telling its story
School trustees and school district administration are constantly in reaction mode.
Frustrated parents often set the agenda and establish the issue of the day and how it is interpreted in the media.
Why is this happening? Because the school district does a piss-poor job of communicating effectively, and communicating consistently.
Too often, parents feel they’re kept in the dark and that leads to speculation and rumour. Assumptions of scheming, incompetence—in other words, bad news.
In the absence of other information, or even context, this can be accepted as truth. To remedy this, SD40 needs to hire a full-time communications person. Today. Yes, it’s probably $100,000 or so, but it will be the best money they’ve ever spent. An effective communications person would establish a consistent communications strategy for our schools, so all schools share information equally well.
They would ensure everyone, school district employees included, know the district’s goals and the progress to that end. And yes, this person would proactively address controversial issues, and provide regular updates on issues of importance.
And they would also help spread the good news. Surprising as it might seem, there is a lot of it in New Westminster. Problem is, everyone’s too busy reacting to the fires breaking out in the information void to get around to telling those good news stories. A few years ago, I wrote about the difference between our coverage of the Burnaby and New West school districts (we publish a Burnaby paper too).
In Burnaby, stories skewed heavily towards good news, or purely informational, which I think accurately reflects reality. In New West, stories were virtually all “bad” news.
On the bright side, this is a time of great opportunity for SD40. When a reputation gets this low, the only way to go is up.
The school district only needs to look to New West City Hall to see a successful example of an image makeover.
After years of being dogged by a bad reputation in the lower mainland, the Royal City is creating a new brand as it revitalizes and does a better job sharing its story of what it is and where it’s going.
With the pending construction of an elementary, middle and high school on the horizon, this is the time to create and cement a new reputation.
When all the schools are built, New Westminster School District will have a chance of a lifetime.
Three state-of-the-art schools, in a city this small. It should put us at the cutting edge. Make us the place where parents want their kids enrolled. Where teachers want to work.
Let’s not fumble the ball.
School trustees, I hope you’re listening.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.
NOTE: After finishing this piece, I learned the school district's secretary treasurer doesn't have an assistant. Years ago, there was an assistant position, but it was eliminated. Oh my god. Please SD40, post for a new assistant today. The job of managing a $60M budget, plus a business company and an education foundation is simply too large for one person.