Since 1996, Moyra Baxter has been a consistent presence on the Central Okanagan Board of Education.
Over those 26 years, Baxter has served as board chair from 2002 to 2008, and again from 2012 until her last meeting on Oct. 26.
For Baxter, her retirement from civic politics marks an end to a lifelong commitment to public education both as a parent and as a trustee.
“I will probably spend more of my time with (Peachland) Rotary, and do more volunteer stuff that was involved with before and get involved with again now that I will have more time for that,” Baxter said of her soon-to-be new-found spare time.
“I don’t think I will be sitting around and thinking what to do with my time.”
As board chair, Baxter is an ex-officio member of every committee and she rarely missed a meeting at the committee or board level.
She recalled one time when a surprise meeting was called after she had booked a trip back to England, so she participated via telephone.
“There was an in-camera meeting which was three in the afternoon here, which was half past 11 in England. There is an eight-hour time difference, so the board meeting started at 6 which was 2 in the morning over there. I think I got to bed about 5 a.m. that morning.”
While Baxter has always been up for a good debate on issues, she admits the COVID anti-vaccine sentiment was difficult for many trustees, and as education board chair she was a particular target.
“As the board chair, you become a spokesperson for the school district. You are on the frontlines and I felt that the last few years with COVID….people saying you should be strung up, bringing up the Nuremberg trials and that sort of stuff,” she recounted.
“You want to try and keep all that in perspective but sometimes it gets a bit scary, other times it was so frustrating with people phoning you at home over and over again and being abusive.
“We start to see people come to board meetings and they want something, and if they don’t get it they get abusive.”
But beyond the social-cultural rhetoric that draws school boards into public policy debates trustees often have little control over, Baxter’s passion for public education can be traced back to her childhood growing up in England.
“I grew up in a system in England where at age 11 you took an exam which would determine which school you would go to afterwards…my best friend I grew up with to that point, we did everything together, she failed the test and I passed, so she went off to a mixed girls and boys public secondary school model, and I had the option to attend private schools with a better quality of education where the schools were mostly all boys and all girls.
“That is just the way it was but it wasn’t until I came to Canada that I began to realize what a class system it was. It became very obvious to me at that point you should be entitled to a public education no matter who you were or what you did.”
Baxter, by then a trained nurse, and her husband arrived in Canada in 1969 as landed immigrants, coming to Calgary before settling in Kelowna.
Their three kids would matriculate in the Kelowna public school system, their introduction to it being enrolment at Raymer Elementary.
Unlike England, she saw how parents were involved in their children’s education and supported the school.
“My parents never went to my school unless I was in trouble, which back in those days was quite often,” she laughed.
“But I began to see how public education was better here than what I had grown up with. Even today, my sister’s grandsons pay a fortune to attend top-rated schools in England and it is not that way here. So I really felt strongly that I needed to support public education here and fight for it in the best possible way I could.”
Baxter’s first foray from being involved as a parent to seeking a seat on the school board came in 1990 while still living in Kelowna. She lost the race by one vote in a controversial decision which due to a judge’s questionable rulings in the admissibility of voting ballots left her an option to pursue legal appeals.
But she opted to turn her attention instead to running for president of the Central Okanagan Parent Advisory Council, eventually becoming the president of the B.C. Parent Advisory Council.
“During that time a position opened up on the school board and a byelection was needed, and everyone was coming back to me and saying you should run again, but at that point, I had committed to COPAC.”
Baxter ended up being the campaign manager for another COPAC member who ran for the vacant seat.
After moving to Peachland in 1994, Baxter was ready to run for school board in 1996.
In Baxter’s early years on the board, there was a conflict between trustees and the school administration and sometimes chaotic disorganization of school board meetings.
“The superintendent at the time believed we could do away with committee meetings, so when motions came up for the board to deal with, often it was the first time trustees had seen them, so it was no wonder that meetings went on and on.”
Baxter said school board meetings are more efficient and productive today because of the committee system in place, where issues can be debated thoroughly not only among trustees but also among education system stakeholders and parents wanting to provide input in a less formal setting.
And she acknowledges current superintendent/CEO Kevin Kaardal makes it clear in administrative leadership meetings how the school board is the governor of the school system and school district staff are their employees.
“I would say of the four superintendents I have served under as trustee, the current one has been the most supportive of the role of the school board…I remember one board meeting where the superintendent at that time said this is the budget recommended, and if you don’t pass it you will all be fired. The recognition of board authority is much better now.”
Baxter remains frustrated to this day about a decision made by the school board in the early 2000s to sell off school properties for short-term revenue benefit, in particular the decision to change George Pringle Secondary from a Grade 10-12 school with 700 students to an elementary school, and funnelling all secondary students to a now overcrowded Mount Boucherie Secondary with more than 20 portables on site.
“I still can’t believe we did that,” she said, an opinion she has echoed numerous times at school board meetings in recent years.
Decisions not to sell Bellevue Creek or Webber Road elementary school have proven wise since both had to be repurposed as schools again this fall because of rising enrolment in the Central Okanagan School District.
Meanwhile, Pringle is being repurposed as a second Westside secondary school, after efforts to find another site for the new school came up empty.
“We were lucky at the time of deciding what to do with Bellevue Creek that the board at the time said we are absolutely not doing this anymore,” she said of selling off school properties.
Looking forward, her advice for anyone who is elected as a new trustee is to listen and learn.
“There is a huge learning curve there. My advice to them is to listen, talk to current trustees and go to the B.C. school trustee academy course in December. Learn what trustees can and can’t do. You just can’t walk into a school and start telling people what to do.”