For some parents, Mark Walsh was the scapegoat who delivered facts they didn’t want to hear. For others, he was refreshingly pragmatic and proved highly adept at negotiating mutually agreeable outcomes for parties on either side of a difficult situation.
After spending the better part of 17 years with the Greater Victoria School District 61, Walsh worked his last day as SD61’s secretary-treasurer in early June. A lawyer, Walsh is now pursuing his legal career in labour and employment law based in Victoria.
Upon leaving, Walsh reflected on what has been one of the most complicated and challenging times SD61 has experienced since it started in the 1860s. He worked for four superintendents, three boards, two chairs, and in that time the district has done some pretty amazing things, he said. Among the challenges SD61 continues to meet are the swelling student population, millions in seismic upgrades, and inflationary costs of building and maintenance due to a boom in the competing construction industry.
“I do very little frankly [in terms of decisions],” Walsh said. “The school boards that I’ve worked for have had progressive visions that are easy to get behind. It’s been an honour to work for them and with great superintendents.
“All a secretary treasurer should be is a facilitator of the board’s and superintendent’s vision.”
Walsh was indeed a key facilitator, a relationship builder, and someone who made things happen, said second-term trustee Jordan Watters, chair of the SD61 school board. It’s been Walsh’s job to network with partners across town and across various levels of government to move the school district’s initiatives forward, she added.
“He has vision, he has the relationship skills to build connections and relationships to move things forward,” Watters said.
And he was cherished for it. His vision and his work will continue to impact SD61 in the coming years, she added.
“Where some people would see challenges or problems he’s able to see opportunities,” Watters said. “It’s always about connecting people to move forward with a mutual benefit. He’s not only been a huge asset to the district but also had positive impacts in the community.”
Walsh’s route is unique. He first served as an elected SD61 trustee from 2002 to 2008, during which time he started a law degree at the University of Victoria. After a stint moving his family to Vancouver to practice law, he returned in 2012 to fullfil SD61’s manager of labour relations. He moved into the secretary treasurer role, quite likely the only lawyer to hold the position in B.C. or Canada.
Among SD61’s bigger accomplishments that Walsh is proud of from his tenure is the establishment of their own facilities department (construction, maintenance, trade work).
“We’re seeing bids for work that are up to 100 per cent more than they should be, in my opinion,” said Walsh, adding it’s presumably the direct result of the building boom. “We’re finding it easier to do jobs in house. It’s taken a while, we didn’t have an organization that was used to doing that and is just getting to that place now.”
The goal is to have SD61 facilities department handle the ongoing construction of learning studios, small seismic upgrades, roof repair, and child care spaces (Victoria being a leader among school boards aggressively commited to building child care spaces).
“When we found lead in the fountains we were able to repair and install all the fountain replacements,” Walsh said.
The oscillation of the student population is currently the most demanding task for SD61. In the 1970s the population reached 30,000 though it later subsided to just 17,500. It is now at 20,000, increasing to a projected 22,000 in the next eight years.
The real challenge with the growth, however, is it’s mostly within Victoria’s core area.
“We’re seeing disproportionate growth to other areas and we’re not seeing growth everywhere,” Walsh said. “George Jay and Oaklands [elementary schools] have gone up multiple hundreds of kids in a few years.”
However, SD61’s proposal to build a new downtown school was turned down by the Ministry of Education. The consensus is that SD61 has the facilities and space, but needs to reallocate it, which brings it to its current place in the ongoing Catchment Boundary Review proposal.
“When you undergo declining enrolment you get financial troubles and facilities issues and that’s what happened,” Walsh said. “One thing I’ve tried to do is make budgeting as transparent as I possibly can. That means explaining how a $200 million budget is put together and how the changes occur.
“It’s been a privilege and an honour to work for an institution of 3,000 people whose sole mission is for kids,” Walsh said.