Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld hasn’t done much for the district over the last year since he stepped back from school liaison duties due to his ongoing and controversial statements about the LGBTQ community, but he did attend a conference in Prague in the summer that he thinks taxpayers should pay for.
“I worked very hard and I came back with enough information for a 30-page report, which I haven’t brought with me tonight, but I believe I’m entitled to this conference, being reimbursed for it,” Neufeld said at the Oct. 2 school board meeting.
He spoke to his own motion for reimbursement, which was seconded by Trustee Heather Maahs, that the board of education approve his professional development expenses totalling $4,027.97 for his summer trip to Europe.
But while Maahs defended Neufeld’s request, the other five trustees called it, alternately, bad optics, irrelevant, nonsensical and unsupportable.
“The optics, with due respect Barry, just don’t work for me,” Trustee Walt Krahn said in part. “I cannot support a trustee going to a psychiatric conference.”
The conference he attended in July was the 23rd International Congress of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professionals. Neufeld said the conference was not open to everyone, but because of his level of education and his career working with at-risk adolescents, he was accepted.
Neufeld has been a controversial figure over the last year for his vociferous opposition to the Ministry of Education’s SOGI 123 teaching resource designed as an anti-bullying tool to help LGBTQ youth in the classroom. Some of the workshops and speeches Neufeld said he attended in Prague touched on this subject to varying degrees, among the titles: sex vs. gender; LGBT youth; self-harm and suicidal behaviour in adolescents.
“I learned a lot and one thing the public might be interested to know is that I changed my position somewhat based on what I learned,” Neufeld told the board.
Part of the problem for the rest of the board, however, is that he shared none of what he gleaned with his fellow trustees.
“Professional development must be considered as a value to the entire board and as an elected official as a value to the entire community,” said board chair Paul McManus, adding that as chair he is responsible for signing off on expenses, something McManus did not do.
Trustee Bob Patterson said he viewed the matter in terms of his own perspective, and would he do what Neufeld did.
“We are using school district funds or funds that are from the community,” Patterson said. “To dish out $4,000, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“I really question the relevance of a psychiatric conference to do work of a trustee,” Trustee Dan Coulter added. “That isn’t what we do. We aren’t psychiatrists.”
Trustee Silvia Dyck said she struggled with the issue, wondering if it was unfair to interfere with professional development. But Dyck did find it an odd time to go, in the summer, and an “extreme” place to go, in addition to the matter of Neufeld not reporting on return.
“When you go to this kind of a conference, it would have been helpful to have a report to find out, ‘This is what I learned,’” she said.
Both Maahs and Neufeld argued that the board’s decision flew in the face of the current expense policy, and both directly and indirectly implied it was political.
“You are trying to embarrass me in front of the public to make me out to be a spendthrift,” Neufeld said.
“I have to question the motivation of what is really going on here,” Maahs said, something she did not clarify until after the meeting.
“Tonight was dirty,” Maahs said in a Tweet to this reporter, adding in a follow-up that if she spilled the beans over what happened during an in camera meeting “a few months back,” which she legally cannot, it would prove it.
Well I could tell you what happened during an in camera meeting a few months back, directly associated with what happened last night, but then I'd have to kill you. You trust me when I say you can go to the bank with dirt done last night.
— Heather Maahs (@heathermaahs) October 3, 2018
“You trust me when I say you can go to the bank with dirt done last night,” Maahs wrote on Twitter the day after the meeting.