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Ex-trustees to seek byelection

Aug 04 2012

A group of deposed Cowichan school board trustees plan to push for a byelection rather than challenge their firing in court.

Former board chairwoman Eden Haythornthwaite said the trustees decided after meeting with their lawyers last week that a court battle would take too long and cost too much money.

"It becomes a little less interesting, I'm sure, if we're not going to have some big knock-down, drag-out [fight] about getting reinstated," she said.

"But, quite frankly, it's more about allowing the community to speak - again."

Education Minister George Abbott fired the nine-member Cowichan board last month for violating the School Act by refusing to submit a balanced budget. Surrey superintendent Mike McKay was appointed official trustee to run the district.

Abbott was unavailable for comment on Friday, but his ministry released a transcript of comments that he made during a July 3 interview on CBC Radio, in which he made clear that government intends to keep McKay in place until municipal elections in November 2014.

Abbott spoke against holding a byelection before 2014, because the old board had failed to do its job and ran for office intent on submitting a deficit budget.

"Clearly, their motive from day one was political, and that is not in the interests of students and parents in Cowichan or anywhere else," he said.

The board voted 5-4 to submit a budget that was $3.7 million in the red because a majority of the trustees felt they could no longer continue to reduce services and still provide a quality education.

The district's senior administrators and a minority of trustees disagreed, arguing that it was possible to balance the budget without making deep cuts.

McKay has since submitted a balanced budget.

Haythornthwaite said the first step for the trustees who supported the deficit budget will be to ask for a byelection.

"We've only had statements made in the press [by Abbott] that there will be no byelection," she said. "I guess the first thing that has to happen is that we actually have to formally seek one and then see what happens after that."

If the answer is still no, Haythornthwaite said one possibility would be to seek a judicial review of that decision.

"In the end, I think getting another byelection is probably primary for the community, if not for us," she said.

Earlier, the trustees obtained a legal opinion that they had sufficient grounds to challenge their firing in court.

But Haythornthwaite said that would have been a costly battle with an unclear outcome.

"We weren't prepared to go to our allies and say, 'We need $100,000 to initiate this challenge,' " she said.

"Quite frankly, I think everyone has better ways to spend their money these days."

lkines@timescolonist.com

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