Opinion

COLUMN: Is New Westminster School District at a turning point?

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If anyone can help New West School District become a well-run organization, and a success, it might just be John Gaiptman.

The new superintendent took charge last month as a fix-it guy whose task is to put this ship back on course.

He walks into a district in almost constant crisis, with a fractious board and a $5M deficit dragon to slay.

But he may be up to the job. He left Victoria School District—sixth-largest in B.C.—in good financial shape and, as he puts it, great educational shape.

Though he's only been here a couple weeks, one can already feel a new mood.

Calm.

Talking with trustees, they sound calm.

And in an interview last week, that's the vibe Gaiptman gave off.

And his talent for communication comes through immediately.

"There's no reason we shouldn't feel good," he told me. "We should feel proud about the work we're doing. Let's start sharing what we're doing well."

To that end, every school board meeting will begin with a showcase of student achievement.

Choirs will sing, and other students will make presentations about the great work they're doing. Every board meeting in Victoria started this way.

And—glory be—meeting agendas will be simplified to make them easier to digest. Parents have busy lives, he said. Let's help them to get what they need at a glance.

Sadly, at the Feb. 25 meeting only one parent showed up.

That's how bad things have become.

LEFT: John Gaiptman was superintendent of
Greater Victoria School District for 13 years.

Gaiptman says that will change, and grappling with the challenges ahead will be an open, civil exchange.

"We should feel comfortable participating in meetings," he says. "You don't observe democracy, you participate in democracy."

One way you get there is by being transparent, he says.

"If you're sharing everything, nobody feels it's hidden under a rock somewhere. You do it because it's the right thing to do."

An important point. Parents have long complained about a lack of information. Trustees have said the same thing, or that only select trustees are getting it.

For the media, he's provided his cell phone number and a promise to return calls by end of day. For those on social media, he's active on Twitter (@JohnGaiptman) where he has 1,270 followers.

There are hard decisions ahead, and Gaiptman's made many in his time. In his first years at the helm in Victoria, he reconfigured the school district and closed five schools. It didn't make him popular.

"But I think the consensus will be that the changes made were correct," he says.

He'll have a lot of work on his plate here. There are only four senior staff (himself included). And while some might argue the money's better spent putting more teachers in classrooms, Gaiptman says it's not ideal.

"There are very few people in this building, even for a district this size."

Given the brutal budget reality, that's not going to change any time soon, he adds.

Luckily, in his years in Victoria, there's "very little in any department" he didn't have experience doing.

And his expertise seems in high regard. It was the Ministry of Education that asked him about coming here, to help us get things on a better track.

The idea of a challenge energized him.

"In life you want to make a difference. You want to be a change agent. I think my skills, my experience, will work well in New West."

When asked about the school board's reputation for acrimony, he said:

"I haven't seen it. I could see passion. I could see frustration."

And with that last word, I think he's nailed it.

Yes, there are personal and philosophical differences among trustees.

But frustration may be the overarching theme. Maybe a lot of the infighting and division that has characterized the relationship among board members, and between parents and the board stems from a lack of clear direction. And perhaps a lack of timely, quality information to make good decisions.

A situation like that can make anyone nervous.

With a steady hand at the helm, one with so much experience—for the first time in several years, trustees have begun to relax.

This should lead to better outcomes.

(How can you be creative or wise when anxiety prevails?)

And trustees who have tried to micromanage school district business—aka Michael Ewen—will release their grip.

As the saying goes, hire good people, then get out of the way.

Is this a Pollyanna treatise? Dreaming in technicolour?

I don't think so.

As of last month, an important piece to fixing the school district fell into place.

• Chris Bryan is editor of the New Westminster NewsLeader.

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