After several years of controversies, criticism, and concerns, the B.C. education minister is directing the Chilliwack education board to make changes after an investigation report raised concerns about its governance.
Since 2017, the board has made headlines for the opinions and behaviour of Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld, who has been a trustee since 1993.
Neufeld has been the centre of controversies for his stances on LGBT and SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) issues, using an ableist slur against journalists, questioning the gender identity of Canada’s chief public health officer, and conduct during meetings. He has also been previously asked by the board and former B.C. education minister Rob Fleming to step down.
Two human rights complaints were filed against Neufeld in 2018 and a Chilliwack resident has filed a lawsuit to have Neufeld removed for violating conflict of interest rules during a closed school board meeting in October.
Although there have been calls for B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside to dismiss the board, she released a statement on April 6 that she is directing the board to “take specific actions to create a safe, welcoming, and inclusive school community for all students”.
Whiteside had appointed two special advisors— Lynn Smith and Mike McKay—on December 22 to evaluate the Chilliwack education board’s governance practices and commitment to student safety.
According to a B.C. government news release, the advisors identified “concerns about the board's ability to adhere to principles of good governance and ethical, civil, and co-operative trustee behaviour” which “resulted in a negative impact on the board's ability to govern and on senior school district staff's ability to support student success”.
In response to the findings, Whiteside stated that she is concerned about the “board's ability to fully support students and function effectively as a governing body”.
The minister has directed the board to take the following steps by Oct. 31, 2021:
- review and revise its policies and codes of conduct for students to promote a safe, welcoming, and inclusive school environment;
- establish a plan for enhancing student achievement, with a focus on inclusive education, children and youth in care, and Indigenous students;
- develop a policy regarding inclusive board practices, with input from the school community;
- review and revise its Code of Ethics for Trustees after input from the school community;
- work with the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner to arrange training;
- collaborate with local First Nations to develop policies and procedures for engagement with Indigenous community members.
The board will submit reports on June 30 and October 31 to provide updates to the minister that will be evaluated to determine if further actions need to be taken. McKay will continue on as an advisor to support and evaluate the progress of the board.
"Elected trustees should model the conduct and approaches the school system expects to see in its students and its graduates, including respect for human rights, empathy for others, and rational and evidence-based decision-making," Whiteside stated.
In addition, the minister asked ministry staff to identify potential legislative and regulatory changes to ensure the actions of elected trustees support safe and inclusive schools for students and staff.
"All students deserve to feel their education needs and well-being are supported at school, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity or academic ability,” Whiteside stated.