11/13/2014 09:50 EST | Updated 01/13/2015 05:59 EST

Coquitlam school trustee race fuelled by budget problems

It's probably one of the least glamorous jobs in politics. But the role of school trustee can be as exhilarating and heartbreaking as any other.

"It's a tough job and my hats off to anyone who has decided to put their hat forward," says John Puddifoot, first vice-president of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils. 

"They are the worst paid of all the people within the system. Their job is to run and allocate the money that Victoria gives them. Victoria decides how much. They decide how to spend that money."

Along with mayors and city councillors, voters around B.C. will have to pick candidates to run the province's school boards next week. 

Financial woes

Perhaps nowhere are the challenges as clearly defined and the competition as fierce as in School District 43, where 25 candidates from Port Moody, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, and Anmore/Belcarra are vying for nine jobs.

That's largely because of financial problems that resulted in a financial audit last year — and a $13.4 million deficit for the 2014-15 school year.

All but two of the incumbent trustees are running for re-election, up against challengers who are calling for greater fiscal management.

Board chair Melissa Hyndes is among the trustees seeking re-election. She claims the board acted swiftly to implement 14 recommendations made by the KPMG audit.

"There was no fault or fraud or anything illegal or criminal in that audit," she says. "Everybody has something to learn from something. There's always room for improvement. Always.

"With the 14 recommendations, we have learned a few things and what were some areas of concern and have fixed them."

The report examined strategic planning, budgeting, forecasting and financial reporting at both the district and board levels.

The recommendations included clarity around the roles of paid staff and elected trustees, more reporting and the establishment of a board finance committee, with training for trustees if considered necessary, or the inclusion of a community volunteer with a financial background.

Full audit not released

The board has released a summary of the audit, but refuses to release the full report.

That led candidates like Shari O'Neill into the race. The Coquitlam mother of two, who previously worked in the Vancouver film industry, started attending board meetings as a member of a parent advisory council.

She believes taxpayers have a right to see the entire audit.

"I have a lot of questions and I want to know what's going on, and I figure the only way to know what's going on is to be on the inside, so that's what I'm doing," she says.

"I want to be on the inside and I want to help find solutions to the problems in this district."

Zongshu Luo, a 52-year-old single mom with a Master of Science degree from SFU, says she's also driven by financial concerns. Like O'Neill, this is also the first time she has ever sought office.

"I feel like no household can be run on a deficit and no business can be run this way and definitely not education," she says.

"That's a big wake up call for us as parents. We send out kids to school, but we never look into details of how the school is running."

School trustees experience one of the toughest learning curves in politics. Their job is to budget the money the province gives them.

Puddifoot says candidates often campaign on a promise to get more money out of Victoria.

"They don't decide how much money they get," he says. "Yes, they can advocate, but I have yet to see a district that has done that, who gets more than one of the neighbouring districts because indeed every district will get the same."

Given that, the budgeting choices school trustees have to make are crucial.

The Coquitlam audit placed blame in part on a financial culture "which has inherently placed more emphasis on educational outcomes and less immediate focus and process rigour around the financial implications of those decisions."

Puddifoot says that's key to the job, and not just in School District 43.

"They have to decide between programs," he says. "They can't do it all. Even if there budgets were doubled, they still couldn't do it all.

"So, it becomes a question of priorities and that's what the election is about: what are the priorities of these trustees?"