School board trustees should embrace genuine diversity and avoid unnecessary legal fights

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Appeared in the Epoch Times, December 27, 2023
School board trustees should embrace genuine diversity and avoid unnecessary legal fights

Too many Canadian school boards are getting sidetracked by unnecessary legal battles rather than focusing on educating students.

Case in point, Carolyn Burjoski, a former teacher in the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB), recently won a decisive legal victory when Justice James Ramsay rejected WRDSB’s attempt to quash Burjoski’s defamation lawsuit and awarded her $30,000 in legal fees.

Burjoski had sued her former employer because the board chair publicly accused her of transphobic behaviour for raising concerns during a board meeting about the sexualized content in a number of school library books. His public attacks on Burjoski exposed the school board to a defamation lawsuit.

In his decision, Justice Ramsay found that the WRDSB chair “acted with malice or at least a reckless disregard for the truth.” Furthermore, Ramsay explained, nothing Burjoski said during the meeting could reasonably be described as transphobic. Given these facts, it comes as little surprise that the judge ruled decisively in Burjoski’s favour.

Things could have been handled much better by the board. Had the trustees stayed focused on education, they likely would not have gotten sidetracked by Burjoski’s comments. They could have simply thanked Burjoski for her input then gotten back to work on education policy. Instead, the board chair picked a fight with one of his own teachers and led his fellow trustees into a losing legal battle. No one can seriously think this was in the best interest of students, particularly since school taxes were spent on legal fees rather than classroom resources.

Sadly, WRDSB is far from the only school board where trustees are distracted by non-educational issues. In Winnipeg’s Louis Riel School Board, trustee Francine Champagne was suspended three times in one year for making controversial social media posts and failing to submit paperwork. The board even filed a legal application to have Champagne removed from office for allegedly violating the Public Schools Act. However, Champagne resigned before the court case began, which was fortunate for the board, since it no doubt saved them considerable money in legal fees.

Parents and other taxpayers don’t elect school trustees just so their hard-earned tax dollars can be squandered on legal fees. Getting into unnecessary legal fights is a bad idea for any school board.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult for school boards to stay out of court. Refrain from defaming employees who make presentations at public meetings, stay focused on educational basics, and allow for diversity of thought on controversial issues. A board that does these things will save money in legal fees, and have a better learning environment for students.

Besides, there are real issues to be addressed in public education. For example, data from the Programme for Student Assessment (PISA) shows that academic achievement is on the decline across Canada, particularly in reading and math. If students don’t learn these fundamental skills in school, not much else that happens there will matter. Improving classroom instruction should be a top priority for every school board.

Trustees would also be wise to crack down on the growing incidents of violence in many schools. Empowering teachers and principals to remove persistently disruptive students from the classroom is essential. Teachers must know that their employers have their backs when dealing with tough situations. Safe and orderly classrooms are a prerequisite to student learning.

And when controversial issues do come up during board meetings, trustees should take a measured approach and acknowledge that Canadians (including many of their own employees) hold a variety of views on topics such as how much gender and sexuality content should be in library books accessible to children. There’s no need to force everyone into the same mold.

If trustees are serious about promoting diversity, they must remember that this includes diversity of thought, not just diversity of appearance. Genuine diversity means that everyone, students and teachers alike, are free to express different opinions without fear of negative repercussions.

Education suffers when school trustees lose sight of their primary mission. The lessons learned by WRDSB and other embattled school boards should be a clear sign to trustees across Canada—stay focused on educating students.