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Cornerstones for the South East Cornerstone board

Board chair and vice-chair have lots of experience
Audrey Trombley Carol Flynn
South East Cornerstone Public School Division vice-chair Carol Flynn, left, and chair Audrey Trombley

WEYBURN - Trombley and Flynn. That sounds like a name of a corporate law firm. It isn’t.

But the team of Audrey Trombley and Carol Flynn have had an impact on a few legal proceedings in southeast Saskatchewan in the course of their ventures.

This partnership has diligently served the South East Cornerstone Public School Division ever since amalgamation of the smaller school districts took place over 15 years ago.

And this partnership wasn’t formed on purpose. It just happened, and has pretty well continued to happen for over a dozen of those 15 years.

Trombley, who has served most of these post amalgamation years as chairwoman for the school division as a representative of subdivision 5 (Fillmore, Stoughton, Midale, Macoun) and Flynn, who has solidified the vice-chair’s role over the same amount of years, with a brief interlude at the mid-way point, have provided leadership expertise that would otherwise be difficult to come by. Flynn represents subdivision 1 schools (Moosomin, Rocanville, Wapella).

Learning how to meld governance bodies with administrative entities in a large public sector environment with thousands of people prepared to cast judgment, is no minor task. These two appear to have managed to pull it off efficiently since they both carry a huge desire to provide a public service, even if that service is not always rewarded or even appreciated.

That doesn’t seem to matter much with them. The rewards are … well, more about that later. Let’s just say, they aren’t seeking praise. They prefer results.

As they join their fellow board members in ploughing through all the COVID challenges and controversies and virtual learning exercises for over 8,200 students and 1,100 Cornerstone employees, Trombley and Flynn have been able to keep their attention focused on what matters most at any given time.

They come by this skill set honestly.

Trombley has spent 40 years employed in local government settings as a rural municipal administrator. She has seen it all pretty well since she also took on roles with a number of provincial boards and committees along the way as local governments began to recognize the need to separate governance from operations.

“I had been working more in the operational environment, I felt a need to explore the new initiatives. So, I enrolled in a certificate program at Humber College, Ontario. I had always considered serving as a locally elected official. It’s a civic duty and if you’re able to commit the time, it’s worthwhile,” she said.

Flynn, on the other hand, has come to the game on a different route, as a teacher and, at one time, a dairy farmer. She’s not sure that learning how to milk 85 cows in less than two hours is a required skill set for an education-based boardroom, but it definitely delivers lessons in responsibility and discipline. Being a teacher in the Moosomin, Raymore and Maryfield regions certainly helped since she knows how board decisions can affect classroom activities and administrative actions from a front line educator’s point of view.

In fact, she says, “I am passionate about education. We have 13 grandchildren, 10 who reside in the SECPSD area. I want to make a positive difference in our communities for kids and families. I feel my background and experience can bring worthwhile views and conversations to our discussions and decisions made.”

She also loves the togetherness that can be experienced in the boardroom when the board members put their minds and thoughts together to arrive at a decision.

A term at the helm of a local school board in Maryfield, was a good opening opportunity for Flynn to explore the benefits of governance which she later took to the Moosomin School Division board room as an elected trustee. She served on that board for nine years until amalgamation brought the SECPSD to life in June of 2005 with it becoming an official entity in January of 2006.

She doesn’t shy away from assuming leadership roles either. “I believe I have the skills necessary to contribute at that level as well,” she said.

Trombley said that while the governance body reflects responsibility and deals with public opinions that are often at both ends of a spectrum, they must strive to achieve middle ground to provide a safe and caring environment for staff and students.

“I have been fortunate to have been able to work with dedicated professional staff. The administration has the most difficult role,” she said.

Those learned skills have allowed Flynn to assume the elected position as first vice-president of the public boards section of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, a role she has held for some time. She had served on several other SSBA committees leading up to that election.  

Community committee work led Trombley to serve as a vice-president of the Rural Municipal Administration for 14 years as well as terms on the Municipal Employees Pension Plan board, the University of Regina Senate and secretary treasurer of the Griffin Roman Catholic Church and, as a rural representative for the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, plus a select number of government committees including the Saskatchewan Assessment Management Agency.

 Flynn has dedicated time as a coach with a girls’ fastball team and boys’ baseball and was secretary of the Maryfield Recreation Board for a number of years and organized the rink kitchen and volunteer schedules. She also was secretary for a cattle co-operative.

“I learned we always have to work as a team to accomplish goals, no matter what the organization is,” Flynn said.

Neither woman feels any compulsive need to try to persuade other board members to “see things my way.” That’s not how they operate. They would rather hear the responses and ideas coming from others.

“I don’t think the position precludes me from expressing my opinion, but I always encourage board members to express their views on any and all decisions,” Trombley said.

“As we sometimes agree to disagree, we move on with the majority decision,” Flynn added. “It is much more difficult when dealing with community members or the public, such as school reviews, COVID, bus transportation issues and delegations who are passionate about their cause,” she added. “It is difficult not being able to always give people what they want and unless some people get the response they wanted, they feel they haven’t been heard and it’s also difficult not always being able to give them the details of a situation. We have to remain professional and people sometimes relate that as not being transparent. It is a fine line.”

School closure is one of the most difficult aspects of the governance job for Trombley.

“I believe students should be provided an education as close to home as possible. We have not closed many schools in our time. I believe communities need to be involved in those decisions. There are also very diverse opinions on what parents want for their children’s education. Sometimes they make the decision to send students to a larger community to get more opportunity such as IA classes or sports or music or to be closer to childcare as examples. When student numbers are reduced in the smaller school it becomes more difficult to provide what is required for student success,” said Trombley.

Another major challenge as far as the chairwoman is concerned, is the unpredictability of funding.

“I recognize it is difficult for the province to predict funding for long term commitments, but it is difficult (for us) to make long term plans for staffing, programs or services with annual funding,” Trombley said. She then added the school division is grateful for preventive maintenance funding that has come from the provincial education ministry but still, the boards face balancing acts to satisfy requests for service and “what we have the resources to do. We deliver quality education, however, there are always requests for more.”

When it comes to board disagreements, Flynn said the positive relationships that prevail at the table usually means members can discuss issues at length, if necessary and by talking things through, arrive at an amicable decision and that disagreements are not and cannot be threatening to member relationships.

Not being able to meet face-to-face for several board meetings, especially with a few new board members, was an additional challenge.

Flynn agrees that school reviews and discontinuation or closures are tough topics, and the lack of stable government funding brings additional pressures on the staff as they seek more efficiencies.

“It is difficult to ‘fix’ everyone’s issues,” Flynn said.

“School divisions are expected to be full service and take on roles that should share costs with other government departments such as health, justice, social services. Schools need to be places where all children need to feel safe and important.”

Supporting staff is also high on the board’s priority list.

Both women spend a significant amount of time tending to their board-related duties. Flynn said incoming emails from a variety of sources take up a great deal of her time as do meetings, whether they are virtual or in-person. She said she and Trombley usually have a weekly conversation via phone and she estimates that in a normal month, board work would consume good parts of four or five working days and conventions and professional development exercises simply add to that.

“But I love it,” she said with a flourish.

“Time on the job is personal,” said Trombley, “I guess between eight and 16 hours a week outside of meetings, tending to board chair duties, depending on the time of year. Emails, research, telephone conversations and so on. I enjoy my role. There is no greater satisfaction than watching the faces of students when they’ve been successful in an event. We have regular reports from staff and they present videos of activities, special programs or events. I love to watch the passion and enthusiasm of the staff, that is what makes it all worthwhile,” she said.

Trombley, on further reflection noted, “When a mom calls me and says her child loves school, and what a great teacher he or she has, those are the good days.”