By Matthew Liebenberg
The Chinook Board of Education has established an ad hoc committee to consider the future of Stewart Valley School, but the area’s trustee will be excluded from the committee’s deliberations to avoid any perception of a potential conflict of interest.
This decision was taken during a regular meeting of the Chinook Board of Education, Dec. 12, but there was not consent around the table on the matter.
The board meeting also determined the date for a community meeting in early January, because the board has received information on insurance coverage and other details relevant to a decision on rebuilding the school, which was destroyed in a fire caused by a bolt of lightning on Aug. 26.
Trustees voted 6-4 in favour of the motion to establish an ad hoc committee of nine trustees. The only board member that will not be part of this committee will be Subdivision 2 trustee Rachael Eliason, the elected representative of the area that includes the school communities of Cabri, Hazlet, Stewart Valley and Success.
The motion determined that the ad hoc committee will consider next steps for the Stewart Valley School. It will meet as needed and it will be dissolved once it has reported to the board.
Board Chair Kimberly Pridmore said during the discussion that legal advice from the Saskatchewan School Board Association indicated the school division might put itself at risk if the Subdivision 2 trustee is part of the decision making about Stewart Valley School.
“The trustees that have spoke to me are concerned about the perception of a conflict of interest, not necessarily whether it is or not,” she told the meeting. “And so I think perception is what it is about here and I think we need to be very careful about the way this board governs itself.”
Eliason did not feel there is a potential conflict of interest. Her oldest child is attending high school in Swift Current and the other two have been enrolled at Waldeck School after the fire destroyed the Stewart Valley School, where they will remain.
“So I honestly feel that I can represent the community without my own personal children situation getting in the way,” she said during the discussion.
She added that it is important for the people in Stewart Valley to have a voice, and she is fully prepared to represent the different opinions that might exist in the community about the rebuilding of the school.
Other trustees expressed some reservations about the establishment of an ad hoc committee to exclude Eliason. Subdivision 4 trustee Katelyn Toney noted that trustees are elected representatives with an accountability to parents and the community.
“It’s a fine line that we tread,” she said. “Communities vote for these representatives to speak for them and to bring their concerns to the board, and I think they have that right to have their representatives speak for them.”
Subdivision 3 trustee Rachelle Patzer said she went through the conflict of interest checklist that was given to board members.
“I actually can’t find one thing on there that would be relevant in this case with Rachael’s children not being enrolled at the school and not going to be enrolled in the school in the future,” she mentioned. “I don’t think there’s one thing on that checklist that applies.”
Pridmore told the Prairie Post after the meeting the intention of that motion was simply to protect the board against any consequences after a decision is made about the future of the Stewart Valley School.
“We’ve had multiple virtual meetings and conversations with our Saskatchewan School Board legal team and the advice from every single member of their legal team would tell us that this was a definite conflict of interest for trustee Eliason,” she said. “The trustees that voted in favour of that motion are really concerned about the perception of the public seeing a conflict of interest with that trustee being a part of the decision. So trustees are looking for ways to protect the integrity of the board.”
She emphasized there is nothing personal about a situation where a trustee might be considered to have a conflict of interest.
“It’s simply as protection for the board,” she said. “And so by putting that item on our official agenda, if anyone were to challenge our decision or challenge our process, we want to make sure that we just protected ourselves the best we can.”
Eliason told the Prairie Post she was disappointed with the board’s decision to exclude her from the ad hoc committee.
“I feel really strongly that I don’t have a conflict,” she said. “I’ve made it really clear to the other members of the board and to the administration what my intentions are as far as schooling and so I was disappointed by their unwillingness to recognize that.”
The decision to enroll two of her children at Waldeck School and to keep them there until high school was specific to her family’s personal situation. She was elected to the Chinook Board of Education in November 2020 as the Subdivision 2 trustee. She feels frustrated that she will not be able to represent the area in this instance.
“I thought that I could represent my community and that I could have a positive influence in the direction of the school division, and I feel now that I can’t do that,” she said.
The board decided during the meeting that a community meeting about Stewart Valley School will take place on Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m. This meeting will be held at Central School in Swift Current due to the need to accommodate more people than at the previous parent’s meeting at the senior’s centre in Stewart Valley.
The board requires some additional information for the decision-making process. A survey will therefore be sent out to families on Jan. 4 to obtain information from parents with children eligible to attend school in Stewart Valley, including parents who live in the Stewart Valley catchment area with children aged 0-5.
“We hope to get the intention of families that would have eligible children,” Pridmore said about the survey. “We hope to get their intention of whether they plan to come back to Stewart Valley if there is a rebuild.”
She added that this information about potential future enrolment will only be part of the information that will be considered about a school in Stewart Valley.
“Enrolment is one piece,” she said. “We have some information now on some insurance coverage. We have some information on some potential quotes to rebuild, we have some potential information on time lines, those things, but this board felt it was important to know from the families that would be eligible to go whether they in fact do plan to go back to Stewart Valley.”
The ad hoc committee will meet shortly after the community meeting and it will then make a recommendation to the Chinook Board of Education about Stewart Valley School.