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School board trustees face oath challenge

Dec 04 2011

How do you swear to uphold a law that you might be willing to break? That's the challenge facing four women who won election in the Greater Victoria school district last month.

Deborah Nohr, Diane McNally, Edith Loring-Kuhanga and incumbent Catherine Alpha will swear an oath of office Monday that calls for them to abide by the School Act and bring in a balanced budget.

Yet all four ran campaigns promising to vote only for a robust budget that meets the needs of all students, which could require them to violate the law and approve a deficit.

Loring-Kuhanga, who voted for a deficit budget while serving on the Saanich school board this year, acknowledged that trustees are in a difficult situation. The law that demands balanced budgets also requires trustees to provide students with a good education, she said.

"We're expected to uphold the best education that we can for students in our district and, on the other hand, we're expected to live by a budget that doesn't meet their needs."

The Saanich board voted three times to reject a balanced budget before the B.C. government intervened and injected additional money into the district. Loring-Kuhanga said she would take the same stand again if she feels students' education is being compromised.

"I'm swearing that I'm going to do the best job that I can on behalf of the public," she said.

Catherine Alpha, a teacher in Sooke, said the only truly balanced budget is one balanced in favour of students.

"I've been teaching in a classroom for 10 years and my number one loyalty is to those students," she said.

"Nothing else should ever come before those students, ever. When I'm saying that oath, that's exactly what I'm thinking."

Nohr, a new trustee along with Loring-Kuhanga and McNally, said trustees have a dual responsibility to bring in a balanced budget and to provide students with a proper learning environment. But if balancing the budget means harming students then "we feel our very first priority has to be to the children," Nohr said.

"It is a dilemma," McNally said. "But I do put the interests of students first and I understand those needs really well."

The first test of their convictions could come within months if the district faces a possible deficit and trustees have to make cuts to balance the books.

In a pre-election survey, a group which was partly organized by local teachers' unions asked candidates whether they would vote to submit "only a fully funded 'needs' budget to government."

"Yes," said Alpha and the three new trustees, all of whom have worked as teachers and received endorsements from the Greater Victoria Teachers' Association.

But nine-year veteran trustee Michael McEvoy, the only incumbent to answer the survey and still hold his seat, said that, while he believes in "fully funded" budgets, the public also expects trustees to uphold their oaths.

"If the question is really asking, will I breach my sworn oath as a school trustee by passing an illegal deficit budget, the answer is no," he wrote.

Peg Orcherton, another board veteran trustee, said in an interview: "Once you're on a public body, you're representing the public, not one group. So it will be up to each of those individual trustees to act according to their oath, and I'm expecting that that will happen."

lkines@timescolonist.com

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