Patti Bacchus: Firing horrible school trustees is dangerous

    1 of 8 2 of 8

      Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld has done it again. This time it’s an outrageous November 19 Facebook post—which seems to be his specialty—deriding and mocking a Chilliwack newspaper publisher, an editor, and a reporter and calling them the “r word”, an outdated and offensive term referring to people with intellectual disabilities.

      Neufeld edited his original post a few hours later, removing the derogatory word and replacing it with "radicals", then “radical lefties”, but not before his more offensive post had been copied and shared on social media.

      That triggered immediate and predictable cries for Education Minister Rob Fleming to fire Neufeld, who has outraged many in the past—including me—for, among other things, attacking the school district’s sexual-orientation and gender-identity policies and charging that “allowing little children to choose to change gender is nothing short of child abuse”.

      Last spring, Neufeld accused the World Health Organization of corruption in a bizarre social-media rant and questioned federal chief public health officer Theresa Tam’s gender identity.

      Neufeld is not the first school trustee to make outrageous and offensive comments. As recently as last June, there were calls for Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustee Fraser Ballantyne to resign after he made offensive racial remarks during debate over whether the district should halt its police-liaison-officer program in schools.

      Barry Neufeld's first Facebook post, November 19.
      Barry Neufeld's edited November 19 Facebook post.

      And before that, former VSB trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo were expelled from the civic Non-Partisan Association party caucus over the duo’s nonsensical claims that the VSB’s updates to its Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity policy, to provide stronger and clearer protections for trans students, would lower property values. (Disclosure: I chaired the VSB at the time.)

      Changing the rules to get rid of bad apples is a bad idea

      They say democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. That saying came to mind in response to calls on Twitter and Facebook for government to find or make a way to fire Neufeld.

      I was particularly alarmed to read a CBC story this week in which  then-education minister Fleming (who will now serve as transportation minister in John Horgan’s new cabinet) said “he was considering all options” to get Neufeld off the school board. I urge Fleming's successor, New Westminster MLA Jennifer Whiteside, to take a deep breath and proceed with caution.

      New B.C. education minister Jennifer Whiteside.

      I believe Neufeld holds horrible and outdated views, posts hateful things, and has no business being on a school board. I believe his statements make some feel unsafe and unwelcome in Chilliwack schools and cause harm. I felt essentially the same about Ballantyne, Denike, and Woo, unlike the thousands of people who voted for them.

      In Neufeld’s case, he placed second in the polls in the last school-board election, and some people clearly think he belongs on the school board. I find that mind-boggling, but that’s how democracy works. If someone goes too far, there are legal avenues to address hate speech that don’t entail subverting democracy.

      I suspect the likes of former education ministers Christy Clark and Peter Fassbender, and a few others, may have felt the same about me when I refused to support closing schools, sell VSB property, or cut more teaching positions and called them out for underfunding public schools.

      Barry Neufeld

      That’s why I caution those clamouring for Neufeld’s firing to take a deep breath and consider the dangers of giving government more power to get rid of trustees it doesn’t like. Whatever mechanism that could be, it could be used by a very different sort of government than we have now, in ways we might regret.

      Under the B.C. School Act, education ministers can fire schools boards but not individual trustees. That shouldn’t be changed to enable firing of individual trustees, no matter how odious and outrageously offensive they are.

      Former B.C. education minister Rob Fleming, now transportation minister.

      That may sound surprising coming from me, a trustee who has been fired by government. I was fired along with my eight colleagues on the VSB in 2016, when we refused to pass a budget that included sweeping cuts to programs and staffing that the majority of us felt were not only harmful to students but also at odds with trustees’ legislated responsibility to improve student achievement.

      It was a political firing (we’d notified the minister we were going to pass the budget, after holding off a few months in protest, and he fired us the morning of the day we were due to vote). Five of us had originally opposed the budget, and four had voted for it, but we were all fired.

      The firing was a blunt instrument that took out four trustees the government probably wanted to keep, but I still believe it was better than if the minister of the day had the power to handpick who they wanted to keep and who they wanted to fire. We were replaced with a government-appointed trustee until the B.C. NDP won election and called a by-election for a new board. (I did not seek reelection.)

      Neufeld isn’t the only problem on the Chilliwack school board

      Keep in mind that while Neufeld gets headlines, he has two allies on the board who support him and appear to support or defend his views, while four trustees opposed him (that became three this week, but more about that later). If firing individuals was made possible with amendments to legislation, where would the line be in terms of who would be fired and who could stay on?

      Neufeld’s colleague Darrell Furgason defended Neufeld last week in an asinine social-media post of his own, complaining about unfair coverage by the Chilliwack Progress and calling the editor and reporter—in all caps—“blind” and “dumb”, adding that it was “no slur” on “people without sight” or “people who are unable to speak”. I am not making this up.

      Neufeld’s other ally on the board, trustee Heather Maahs, is no stranger to controversy herself. Neufeld may be the lightning rod, but he’s the tip of a troubling iceberg that won’t go away, even if he does. Clearly, there are voters who support this troubling trustee trio, and in a democracy we take the good with the bad—and which is which depends on your own perspective and values.

      The cure for what ails the Chilliwack school board, and all boards with offensive trustees, is the democratic process

      Democracy is hard and inefficient work but it’s worth it, and it’s the best we’ve got. And as the saying goes, we get the governments we deserve.

      Former Chilliwack board chair and trustee Dan Coulter was elected to the provincial government in the recent election and resigned from the board this week, which means there will be a by-election to fill his seat on the school board.

      Coulter was a good trustee and chair, in my opinion, with progressive and fair-minded views. He leaves the board with a three-three split, so whoever wins the by-election, which has yet to be set, will determine the course of the board during the two years remaining in the term.

      If voters elect someone who aligns with Neufeld, Furgason, and Maahs, it would be disastrous for the Chilliwack school district, as they would have a majority.

      It’s absolutely right to rail loudly in letters to the editor and on social media about how abhorrent Neufeld’s comments are and urge voters to organize to ensure that a decent human who supports and respects human rights and public education wins the by-election—and that Neufeld and his allies don’t get reelected next time around.

      That’s the work of democracy. If Chilliwack voters really think Neufeld, Furgason, and Maahs are the type of people who should be governing a school district, then that’s a Chilliwack problem and Neufeld is merely a festering symptom of a sick community.

      Amending the B.C. School Act to give a minister powers to remove individual trustees they find offensive or inappropriate, no matter how odious, is a risky road we shouldn’t go down, even if it means Chilliwack’s twisted trio gets to hold on to the seats voters chose to give them.

      I challenge everyone who is calling for their firing to work on nominating an outstanding candidate to run in the by-election and to work the phones, fundraise, knock on doors (when it’s COVID 19 safe to do so), and spread the word about Neufeld and company and make sure someone progressive is elected to replace Coulter. And the next time general elections come along, make sure that Neufeld and his allies are sent packing.

      One of the challenges when it comes to school boards is how little power they have any more and how reluctant they often are to authentically engage their communities and truly steer their districts, instead of rubber-stamping managers’ recommendations.

      That can lead to voter apathy, which enables folks like Neufeld to get elected over and over. School boards need to reclaim their governance role and demonstrate to voters that they matter and that they will ensure community priorities and values are represented at the board table and in local schools.

      During the past several years, B.C. school boards have shifted toward more of a “speak with one voice” model that stifles democratic debate and discussion. Rather than trying to muzzle the likes of Neufeld, let him speak and reveal himself to the public and let the public decide if it wants him voting on decisions that affect children and youth.

      And keep up the calls for Neufeld’s resignation. With a by-election on the horizon, it wouldn’t cost taxpayers any more to elect two new trustees than it would to fill only Coulter’s seat, although I doubt he’ll ever go willingly.

      You’re better than this, Chilliwack. Stop electing terrible trustees. You get the government you deserve, and your kids sure deserve better.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.