Top SD43 officials' trip to China just business: district

Trip by Coquitlam board chair, superintendent, director of marking paid for by international education department to "connect with partners or foster new relations" — but superintendent, board chair unavailable for comment.

Two months after School District 43 trustees put on hold a planned trip to China due to security concerns, district officials — including the superintendent and the chair of the board of education — travelled to China on a business trip to promote SD43's international education program, The Tri-City News has learned.

This trip, taken by board chair and Coquitlam Trustee Barb Hobson, superintendent Patricia Gartland and the program’s director of marketing, was funded by the international ed. department's marketing budget, not by the government of China, as has happened in past trips taken by trustees.

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Neither Gartland nor Hobson — SD43's top staff and elected officials respectively — responded to multiple interview requests since last week. And an SD43 spokesperson told The Tri-City News last week, "Both Ms. Gartland and Ms. Hobson are unavailable until mid-to-late August."

According to Ken Hoff, SD43’s assistant director of communications and community relations, the trio visited China for a week in late May as part of a normal course of doing business to “connect with partners or foster new relations,” charging $6,500 in travel costs to the international ed. department.

“There are routine trips overseas [to many countries] to connect with partners or foster new relationships on a regular basis as part of normal operations of the program, and, as such, are business expenses of the department,” Hoff stated in an email.

It was not the same as the spring break trip taken annually by trustees that the board postponed in March because of security concerns after diplomatic relations soured between China and Canada following the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver and the subsequent detention of two Canadians, including a former diplomat. In June, China officially arrested Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for allegedly stealing state secrets.

Canada continues to monitor the situation and, as recently as July 15, validated its security warning, urging visitors to China to exercise a high degree of caution.

But for the school officials who went to China, no extraordinary security measures were taken and the journey, which Hoff called a business trip to support the international education department, noting the goals were to solidify existing sister school relationships and support new partnerships.

While neither Gartland nor Hobson was available to comment on the difference between the business trip and previous trips paid for by Hanban, the education arm of the Chinese government, in March, Hobson said that the trustees' trip had to be postponed while officials waited for a change in the declared security risk for travellers. 

“We continue to monitor and we will go when it’s the right time. I’m not predicting when that will be,” Hobson said at the time.

Until this year, trustees took trips to China paid for by the Chinese government through its education arm Hanban, with expenses reported on annual Statement of Financial Information reports.

Last year, for example, six trustees went on the trip, with the $10,591 in travel costs paid for by the Chinese government.

Since 2012, the trips have been an annual event designed to enhance relations between education officials of the two countries and promote SD43’s international program.

Currently, SD43 has the largest and most profitable international education program in B.C. and students from China make up a large proportion of the approximately 2,000 students who attend school here from other countries, generating $35 million in revenue in 2018, according to SD43 figures.

This is the program's 20th year in SD43, according to a recent report, with students reportedly doing well, obtaining 76% on average in high school marks.

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