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Trustees' free trips a possible conflict: UBC prof

Cleaner and simpler to pay your own way, ethics professor says
China trip
Current and past School District 43 board chairs Judy Shirra and Kerri Palmer Isaak visited China this year with a grant from the Chinese government through Hanban, its education ministry.

School District 43 trustees should reconsider accepting free trips from the Chinese government, says a UBC ethics specialist.

Little is known about an 11-day trip to China in March that cost $32,000 and was paid for by the Chinese government through its education ministry.

And while the district maintains the purpose of the trip was for trustees to learn about and promote SD43’s international education program, Michael McDonald suggests trustees should pay their own way for such trips.

“It’s much cleaner and simpler,” said McDonald a professor emeritus of applied ethics at UBC. “You know, if you’re going to have an event in China, to say, ‘We’ll pay for our people, you’ll pay for your own people.’”

There are no public photos of banquets, tourist trips or even handshakes or document signings with Chinese officials from the trip as one might expect to see from a Canadian delegation, and even trustees’ and SD43 Facebook pages and board calendar reports don’t mention the trip, which ran from March 6 to 17 and included superintendent Patricia Gartland as well as trustees Carol Cahoon (Coquitlam), Kerri Palmer Isaak (Anmore and Belcarra), and Judy Shirra and Michael Thomas (Port Coquitlam).

But McDonald, who has worked on applied ethics in the medical industry, told The Tri-City News even the appearance of trustees accepting hospitality from a foreign government erodes trust in the electorate. He said research has found that people tend to favour hosts who shower them with hospitality even though they believe the generosity won’t cloud their judgement.

“Conflict of interest isn’t always apparent to the person who is in the position,” said McDonald.

It’s particularly important for trustees to avoid a possible conflict of interest, he said, because they are responsible for the public purse and for decisions regarding policy.

“When I’m a fiduciary for somebody else, I’m in trust for them, it’s better for me as a safety measure [to say], ‘No, I will pay my own way, thank you.’ And if it’s too much to pay, then maybe we shouldn’t be doing this at all,” McDonald said.

But according to Gartland, the annual trip taken by trustees is both a working trip to meet with education officials who allow Chinese students to study here and a form of professional development for the politicians, who get an up-close look at the international education program.

And she said she’s not uncomfortable with applying for a grant again in 2018 through the Confucius Institute to cover the costs for trustees.

“If it meets a criteria — which is the promotion of mandarin language and Chinese culture — you can get a grant. We have a very prosperous international education program and we use that cultural opportunity with China to enhance the international education program and build relationships with education bureaus and sister schools.”

Whether the trip was a success was never discussed at subsequent public board meetings. In fact, the trip would not have come to light without reporting requirements that ensured that the approximately $8,000 per person cost was listed in the Statement of Financial Information approved in November and previously reported in The Tri-City News.

The itinerary included stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, and the trip is described in an SD43 email only as meetings with several sister schools and education bureaus to invite students and teachers to study in Coquitlam.

Only trustees who were current or previous chairs or vice-chairs of the board went on the China-funded trip, as they did in 2016, according to the 2016 SOFI report.

“They’re benefitting the school district, they’re working for the school district when they are on the trip, we are making sure it supports the education program,” said Gartland.

SD43 also hosts the Confucius Institute so students can study Chinese language and culture in the evenings and on weekends, and Gartland said she disagrees with critics who say China is using the Confucius Institute to promote its own aims. She said the institute here hires only local Canadian teachers for the program, and students pay fees.

“We really want our students to be exposed to opportunities to learn about other cultures and other languages,” Gartland said.

But money is the bottom line.

The financial success of SD43’s international education program is unsurpassed among B.C. districts, and since Gartland was in charge of the program prior to becoming superintendent, it has grown each year, now bringing in more funds than similar programs in Vancouver and Surrey, and pumping $34 million into the operations budget.

Comparatively, Surrey brought in $13.5 million in 2016 and Vancouver $22.7 million.

This year, Vancouver School Board has 1,767 full time equivalent international students paying $14,000 in annual fees compared to 2,000 in SD43 who pay $15,000, and while Vancouver sent a trustee and a superintendent to China with a city of Vancouver delegation in 2013, the trip was board sanctioned and funded, according to Barbara Onstad, district principal of international education at VSB.

However, she said overseas trips about studying in Vancouver are usually made by staff in the international education department.

International education staff in SD43 also take trips to promote SD43’s successful program.

There are approximately 4,000 students in all, between regular and summer school programs, with fees generating a $4.8 million surplus for the school district, money it gets to spend this year on critical areas, such as the hiring of a mental health coordinator, but also smoothing out the bumps while SD43 awaits provincial grant funding to land in the bank.

“The international funding gives you resiliency,” said Gartland, who said that in addition to money, closer relations to China through education and culture will benefit students in a world that’s increasingly globalized.

“if you want to change the world, you should get to know the world,” Gartland said. “You can influence the world more by sharing points of views, sharing in discussion and learning from each other — ignorance is not the answer.”

But while the financial benefits of the program are unquestioned, and could be seen as critical for shoring up provincial funding and stabilizing student enrolment, accepting the free trip from the Chinese government may not be in the best interests of the district, UBC’s McDonald says.

“Not to condemn the trustees, but just think carefully in the ways we can be influenced by this and not just get defensive but [to acknowledge] ways in which you are seen by other people, [who might think] ‘Gee, maybe they should have kept a better distance.’

“With trustees,” he said, “you hate to see them running the brand down.”