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'It’s just a really positive environment'

New secretary-treasurer treasurer looks forward to stability in Burnaby after 10 months with the Vancouver School Board.
Russell Horswill, secretary-treasurer, school district
Burnaby school district secretary-treasurer Russell Horswill

It seems Russell Horswill shook the proverbial dust off his sandals when he crossed Boundary Road and took up the secretary-treasurer’s post in the Burnaby school district this week.

Before taking the same job in Vancouver in February, the 52-year-old had told a Comox newspaper the move would be his last after more than 30 years in the K-12 school system. Less than a year later, he and the rest of the Vancouver School Board’s senior staff were off on sick leave amidst allegations from the B.C. School Superintendents Association of “a toxic work environment” between politically divided trustees and school board staff.

Of his seven secretary-treasurer jobs before Burnaby, the 10-month tenure in Vancouver was by far the shortest. Most recently he was in the Comox Valley district for more than four years, in Grande Prairie, Alta. for more than seven and in Fort Vermilion, Alta. for four.

The Burnaby NOW sat down with Horswill Tuesday for a chat. While he stayed mum on his experience in Vancouver, the stability of the Burnaby district was a common theme.  

Before taking the Vancouver job less than a year ago, you told a Comox paper you thought that would be your last move, what happened?

I think just looking for more opportunities. I’m 52, so it’s a really good time actually to be looking at being stable and finishing your career in one place.

Of course, but I don’t think 10 months in one job was what you were looking for.

In Vancouver? So, I’m going to stay away from Vancouver a little bit in this interview.

A little bit?

A lot, actually. I’ll just sort of not give a lot of comment on Vancouver.

What appealed to you about the Vancouver job in the first place?

A personal challenge, an opportunity to make a huge contribution to a lot of students, a bigger district. Burnaby fits right in there actually. I was interested in Burnaby for sure from the beginning.

What drew you to the Burnaby job?

A real high reputation for the district, a lot of really positive comments, wonderful board, very stable system, growing district (a little bit), nice size, lots of support systems, everything about the district, actually. When you start talking to people or do some reading online, it’s just a really positive environment, and that’s something I was looking forward to.

Secretary-treasurers and superintendents are a pretty small pool; do you talk amongst yourselves about the different reputations of different districts and school boards?

Not necessarily specifically.

What? C’mon.

No, not really. I’ve been in the K-12 sector now for almost 30 years, so I’ve seen a lot of comings and goings in a lot of districts, and any time you look at a district like Burnaby where a (former secretary-treasurer) Greg Frank was here for so long and such a stable environment, you know it’s a good-running district, right? If they’re moving through staff on a frequent basis, then you start to wonder what’s going on.

You’ve worked for a lot of different boards over the years. What makes for a good board?

A board that represents the community well, nicely focused on student outcomes, achievement, looking for holding the senior management team accountable to produce results and implement their policies and strategic plan – those are good indications of a stable, steady, good board.

They keep the senior management accountable, but it’s not like their role is so clearly defined that everybody gets it. How does a good board deal with that?

I think it really comes down to the relationship they have with senior management. I’ve only been here two days, so I can’t really comment too much on Burnaby, but my experience would be that that’s a really important component to both the board and the senior management team being successful.

What about their own relationship with each other?

Yeah, that’s politics; I’ll stay out of that one. I mean, different boards have different relationships and cause different dynamics, right.

You told a Grande Prairie paper that your favourite part of the job is capital projects. Is that still true?

Oh yeah. I love capital projects, I really do. They’re fun. I love engaging the parents and the community and students and staff in developing projects and trying to end up with really successful projects. Grande Prairie at the time was a really fast-growing school district, so there were many new schools being built or being planned, and it was pretty exciting times up there.

So you don’t mind the public interaction and engagement? You’re that kind of secretary-treasurer?

Yeah, I’ve enjoyed working with parents and communities as we look at different projects. There’s obviously different roles in different districts, but my sense is that in this district there’s a public face to the position.

How are you feelings about Burnaby’s upcoming projects?

I haven’t really immersed myself too much yet. I’ve reviewed the capital submission that was done; I’ve got some meetings set up for this and next week to start reviewing where we’re at with various projects. The seismic projects, the strengthening and the replacement schools, are important to move forward, and then we have to deal with growth as well. Then there’s the heating and boiler systems that have to be dealt with. So, in the near future I’ll be diving head first into what we have as far as the capital projects, capital plans and then start our work with the ministry and the board to get those funded.

What are the biggest challenges facing this district, any district from a secretary-treasurer’s point of view?

Operating budgets continue to be a challenge across most districts. That’s probably the key one that affects the vast majority of school districts. This district, the budget’s balanced. I haven’t had a chance yet to dive into what 2017/18’s going to look like yet, but it appears the current year is well planned.

What makes for a good secretary-treasurer?

I think a good secretary-treasurer is a person that can meet with people and explain complex issues in an understandable way, is a good listener, is interested in students so that decisions made are student centred, and are able to be a conduit between the ministry staff and the school district to help advance issues, whether it’s capital or operating or educational issues. It’s very much a role that looks at many different areas of the organization – from labour relations to technology to finance to operations – so having an understanding of how all those work departments work.

Are you a good secretary-treasurer?

I keep getting hired so I hope I am. (laughs) I am committed to kids. I’ve been in the education sector since 1987, so pushing 30 years. When I came into this sector, I had made a decision to make this my career, so I wasn’t interested in going into other agencies or for-profit businesses. I was very much focused on doing the best I can within the K-12 sector. I get enthusiastic about doing work to support kids.

What drew you to it? Why this?

Actually, my long history of it is I used to audit the Nelson school board before I got into the school system. I worked for an accounting firm and we used to do audits on the school board. Through the audits, I got interested in the business and then an opportunity came up in Merritt where I started. The rest of it is a career.

Do you think this is your last move?

Yes, I do. (laughs)

What mark would you like to leave on your last district?

I’d like to hand it over to the next secretary-treasurer where it’s at a really stable, good position; that the educators felt that they were able to move their education agenda forward and that they were supported by the business services side to do that; and, overall, continue to support the great system that seems to exist here.

That’s about all of my questions. Anything to add?

I’m just super excited to be here, really. I’m very enthusiastic about the district, the role, the people that I’m working for. Clearly people are focused on doing good stuff for kids, and that’s a great environment to work in, so I’m very excited about what the future brings.