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Retiring Port Moody school trustee recounts 'challenges' and 'victories'

Keith Watkins will not be running for Port Moody school trustee in the upcoming civic election. He has served on the SD43 board of education for three decades.
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Port Moody school trustee Keith Watkins is stepping down from his role on the School District 43 board of education.

A long-time Port Moody trustee is leaving behind his beloved school board seat as he retires just months before the next civic election.

Keith Watkins, at age 71, has been a School District 43 (SD43) trustee for three decades, and announced his plans to step down at the June 22 board of education meeting.

Appreciated for his "historical perspective," according to board chair and Port Coquitlam trustee Michael Thomas, Watkins will be missed as being a veteran with years of valuable experience who was never shy about sharing.

Watkins told the Tri-City News issues resulting from a concussion he suffered four years ago led to his decision to step back.

He said he relied on small groups of supporters who appreciated his advocacy over school boundaries, crossing guards, school closures and busing, to help him win elections.

But this year, Watkins decided not to run in the Oct. 15 election because his health issues would not enable him to do the job to the fullest. 

"I've had a good time. There have been victories as well as challenges," Watkins said, noting he leaves SD43 in good hands with a strong leadership team led by superintendent Patricia Gartland.

He has always valued education since he was assisted by an educator en route to his high-school graduation, and while his job was in the toy distribution business, he wanted to be able to help make school better for students and their families.

Watkins enjoyed speaking up

Over the years, school has changed from a routine, top-down administration to more personalized learning where more decisions are made by schools than school trustees.

Watkins admitted he sometimes faced difficulties in trying to represent Port Moody issues on a "corporate board" that had to do what’s best for all Tri-City schools.

In one recent instance, Watkins championed parents who didn’t want boundary changes to Eagle Mountain Middle.

Eventually, a portable was put on its grounds so students didn’t have to change institutions. Now, additions are planned for the Anmore school.

"What happens is we get on a corporate board and your job as part of the corporate board is to run a school system for the Tri-Cities," Watkins explained.

"But on any given day, your local people have had issues whether it's their school might be closed or their boundaries might be changed. And what I kept doing all the years was speaking up for them."

Watkins said it's been a hallmark of his time in office that he would speak up, even if doing so caused him problems.

He was known to speak out against elements of the budget and is now pleased there is a policy in place to put surpluses back in the classroom, albeit over three years to smooth out the bumps in provincial funding.

He also supports the international education program that generates much of the surplus that can be used for school programs.

Never enough funding for B.C. schools

Watkins said these adjustments are necessary because there is never enough funding for schools, including funding for special needs students.

When he first became a school trustee, school districts raised taxes themselves and got loans to build schools.

Now the province has more control, but it means funding doesn’t always keep up with costs, he said.

Those issues are no longer for him to fight, he said, and he finds much satisfaction in that his daughter, Shannon, who served as a Port Moody councillor for three years, is following in his footsteps. 

She's now fighting for organized labour with the BC General Employees Union (BCGEU), Watkins said.

As for advice to new trustees, Watkins says it’s always important to remember who is at the heart of all board decisions — students and families.

"There is a vision going forward and being accountable. But it within that, the students are amazing. It's still important to take care of them and those small groups with little kids."