The view from other side of the table

Karen Petty has learned many of the facets of serving as a school board trustee since her acclamation in 2008.

Karen Petty has learned many of the facets of serving as a school board trustee since her acclamation in 2008.

For one of Mission’s school board trustees, sitting at the table last month explaining her reasons to close two local schools was 180 degrees away from where she stood three years ago.

Karen Petty is a first-term trustee, and in 2008, had no ambition to get on the board.

Until her children’s school — Edwin S. Richards elementary — was included on a list of five schools being considered for closure, Petty was content as a mother and full-time finance manager at Morrey Infiniti Nissan in Coquitlam.

“I got a crash course on school board policy,” she said of those early days. She and other parents in the district spent countless hours preparing presentations and pouring over documents trying to source salient points to convince trustees to keep their respective schools open.

Three years later, Petty found herself sitting as a trustee, watching other parents working diligently to convince her to keep Deroche and Durieu elementary schools open.

“Did I feel for [the parents and students]? Yes. I’ve been in your shoes and I get it,” she noted.

“We all had an awful lot of butterflies” on Feb. 22, 2011 when the final choice was made. All the trustees said it was the most difficult decision they had made, and Petty was hopeful parents understand this decision, and all others around the table, was not made lightly.

“A lot of parents don’t know what the board is … and a lot of people don’t understand how governance really works,” she said. “It’s really easy to criticize people. The tough stuff is actually getting out there and doing it.”

This sentiment underlines why Petty took on the challenge of being a politician.

“If anyone is going to spend $60 million [Mission’s approximate budget], I wanted to make sure it was done right. I don’t want decisions made based purely on emotion.”

Petty’s own involvement — beyond working with the PAC for years — with the school district began in November 2007, when alongside ESR, the board of trustees put Ferndale, Fraserview, Stave Falls, and West Heights elementary on a list for possible closure. In March 2008, trustees voted to shut the doors at Ferndale, Fraserview and Stave Falls.

In 2008 she argued ESR was too complex a school to close, and in the end, the board agreed with her.

And it was shortly after that event her friends started putting the idea forward of Petty running for a spot as a trustee in the November 2008 election.

“It was no light conversation and it wasn’t until September that I decided,” she said.

“I’m not afraid to ask the questions and I always try to think four steps out. I’m not a school teacher — I have a finance background. But I look at the long-term implications while understanding the short term effects,” she said.

Despite her fight to convince trustees, the Israel Avenue resident said she was never mad at anyone on the board, and wasn’t intent on kicking a trustee out to make room for her. When former trustee Shelley Clarkson announced her retirement from the board, Petty switched her riding with 16 minutes left before the filing deadline to run in the rural riding.

Petty was acclaimed and the rest of the board remained status quo.

The thrill of getting involved was quickly buried as Petty took up her position.

“It was straight up hell,” she said of the first year’s steep learning curve. “I had to figure out my role as an individual trustee and how that rolls into the board decision-making process.”

Petty soon found herself having to think on multiple levels simultaneously: “Here’s what I want as a parent, as an ex-PAC member and as a trustee. Now I have to balance that with the needs of the other 6,400 kids.”And while Petty thought she understood what it meant to be a trustee before getting acclaimed, reality showed the error of her presumptions, especially around funding.

So much is decided provincially and is beyond the policy board’s control. But the hard decisions on how to implement what they’re told fall to trustees, including the legislated requirement that school district can not run deficits.

This particular piece forced the 2008 conversation on school closures, as well as last month’s decision, which will see Durieu Elementary School shut down at the end of the academic year due to low enrolment.

Despite the stress and time away from her family, Petty said she intends to run for re-election in November.

“I didn’t get on this for a one-year term. I have committed myself” until the electorate decides they don’t want her on the board.

“I’m committed to not just maintaining the status quo.”