“Poor baby, do you feel unsafe?”
That was the private message sent by one Chilliwack school trustee to another, during a school board Zoom meeting. It was that one message that sent shivers down recipient Willow Reichelt’s spine.
It also lit the fuse on a powder keg of emotions building up for more than a year, due to acrimony at the board table. Reichelt says she’s been the target of continued harassment by some of her fellow trustees, and that she’s been able to brush most of it off. But this message, sent by Trustee Barry Neufeld was something that immediately bothered her.
“I felt honestly like I’d been punched in the gut,” she says. “I got that feeling like the blood drained out of my body, it really affected me.”
Neufeld had first sent her a message calling her a hypocrite, telling her not to laugh at a topic that came up in the meeting. When she replied not to private message her, he replied with the “poor baby” comment.
Reichelt took a screenshot and sent it to three trustees who have been supportive of her time on the board. Meeting summaries show that two Special In-Camera meetings were then called about trustee conduct, and Trustees Furgason, Maahs and Neufeld did not attend.
Neufeld then brought the issue up in a public meeting on Oct. 20, using his trustee report time. He began to apologize but then spoke against Reichelt and others, along with the teaching resource SOGI 123.
In that same report he said it’s the hill he was literally willing to die on.
The Code of Ethics for the board include the promise to “make no remarks, in or out of the Board meetings, that disparage other members of the Board, employees of the district or recognized partner groups.”
The school board has already censured Neufeld for previous comments, and prior to that he was excluded from having any liaison schools. Both sanctions continue to this day.
There is no indication there will be any recourse for Neufeld sending the message to Reichlet, and Reichelt was willing to keep quiet about it — until Neufeld himself spoke publicly about it himself. She was visibly near tears when responding to his report, in the public meeting held Oct. 20.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” she says. “But this is a pattern. It’s an absolute pattern, this is not the first time they’ve used their trustee reports to do this, and the emails that I get from them are horrible.”
Later in the week, Neufeld posted about the incident on his Facebook page, with his explanation.
“After enduring over two years of name calling and insults by Willow Reichelt, I finally had enough!,” he wrote. “Following the example of Our Lord, I called her a hypocrite when she scoffed and snickered at Trustee Heather Fraser Maahs warning that by approving a pay out of thousands of dollars to a gay advocacy group, the board was setting a precedent that would come back to haunt us!”
He later removed the word “gay” from his post, and there has been no official explanation of what payment his post is referring to. There has been no public discussion of a payment to a “gay advocacy group.”
Reichelt also took to her social media to explain what had transpired in the meeting, and shared an image of the messages in question.
The Chilliwack School Board started off their four-year term in two fairly firm camps back in 2018. Trustees Neufeld, Maahs and Furgason have banded together and usually vote in lockstep, although sometimes Neufeld abstains. Similarly, Trustees Reichelt, Coulter, David Swankey and Jared Mumford often vote similarly.
Reichelt says that while she and the others often think similarly, they have different politics and ideas.
“The only thing we’re really solid on is human rights issues,” she says, such as LGBTQ rights, and the also-controversial issue of dress codes. And those are the issues that the other three trustees vote against, she adds.
It has led to bitter debates, and even reactionary body movements such as eye rolling, guffaws and laughter from some trustees. Reichelt says what the public sees is just the tip of the iceberg.
“I can say that what the public has seen is about 10 per cent of what I’m actually facing in private meetings and email,” she said. At one point, an expert was brought in to help the board resolve their conflicts so they could get back to the business of the board — education.
But not all trustees were participating and it was no longer deemed cost effective. Reichelt said at that time, about six months into her term, she took the advice to react less and try to ignore it.
And she’s done that. But the harassment, which she says would not be tolerated in any normal work setting, continues.
The actions such as using public trustee reports to trash other trustees, and sending out nasty emails, have created a toxic work environment, she says.
She wants others to know that it’s okay to speak out, even though she’s kept quiet all this time. She says she’s thankful for Trustees Coulter, Jared Mumford and David Swankey for supporting her both behind the scenes and in meetings.
In the Oct. 20 meeting, Mumford commented that anyone being harassed at work should feel free to speak up, especially women.
Reichelt is hoping one day the Ministry of Education changes its policies around trustee removal, so that codes of conduct can be upheld and boards can focus on education matters instead of controversy at the table.
“This whole experience of the last two years, what I take away is that the Minister of Education needs to rewrite the school act with a binding code of conduct for trustees and the ability to remove individual trustees,” she says. “I think there should be some sort of review board, so the board could vote to remove a trustee.”
“If I was an employee of the district I could file a harassment case,” she underlines, adding that she wants to “highlight that women don’t deserve to be treated like this in the workplace.”
“I want people to know that none of this is okay, you have the right to go and get it dealt with.”
In response to several trustees using their report time for speeches on issues unrelated to education, Trustee Swankey has put forward a motion on creating a guidelines for these reports. That is coming to the board for discussion at the Nov. 3 meeting.
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