At the first all-candidates school board trustee debate of the 2011 civic election, hosted by the New Westminster Teachers Union, emcee and Left Coast blogger Stacey Robinsmith had a bit of last-minute shuffling of tables and chairs to do. As he shoved the last one into place he quipped, “That’s CUPE work, sorry everybody!” Stacey got a good laugh for that zinger, but his little joke also reflected one of the contentious questions of concern to the (unfortunately somewhat sparse) crowd of union folk, council and mayor candidates and political axe-grinders.
In Alfie Lau’s coverage of the event in the Record he mentions that the candidates “scored no knockout blows,” and so no clear winner emerged. The structure of the “debate” – as with most all-candidates debates – didn’t really lend itself to verbal repartee, and within the limited opportunity for rebuttal, in all cases the candidates played it safe.
I’m no expert in school board matters, but it seems to me that over the past three years, the big issues in the local newspapers have been the tortuously slow progress on building new schools, the investment in the district’s business company (which has lately started to show a return), the question of whether to close tiny Hume Park Elementary and above all, the toxic politics that divide the current Board and hamper its ability to efficiently fulfil its mandate.
The interests of the crowd, or at least those who submitted questions, had little to do with any of the issues I was expecting to hear about. A number of questions were asked about the potential for outside interference from unions for candidates who were employed by unions as teachers or who have accepted New Westminster and District Labour Council funding and endorsements, the role of private enterprise in schools, support for programs of choice and levels of funding for students with disabilities. These are contentious issues for some union members, but (correct me in the comments if I’m wrong) these are not the burning issues that matter to the majority of New West voters. The only candidate that alluded to the difficulties the board has faced in achieving consensus was Casey Cook, who noted, “Where we are challenged as a district is what takes place in the boardroom.”
Given that, the other big surprise was just how similar all the candidates’ answers were.
As I mentioned, over the past three years every mention of the school board has been paired with moaning about how dysfunctional it has been. Yet when it came time to hear from each of the candidates, virtually all of them said they were for the same things: putting kids first, offering parents and kids choices when it comes to education, providing access to technology to enhance learning, supporting programs of choice, being prudent stewards of the budget, etc. etc. While their aspirational values may be the same, where the rubber meets the road is how they define these ideas and what steps, tradeoffs and choices they would make to realize these. I am hoping to hear more specific commentary differentiating the candidates’ approaches later in the campaign.
A number of mayoral and council candidates were present to listen, shake hands and support trustee candidates. I didn’t expect to see such easy camaraderie among the candidates. I even overheard councillor Betty McIntosh take a moment to offer some public speaking tips to one of the new female candidates. I didn’t expect to see the more experienced politicians mentoring the political newcomers. I don’t know whether this is something that’s typical, but I was glad to see it.
Major themes the candidates kept returning to included how to improve communication between the school board and constituents, how to strengthen school ties with the community, and especially the need to lobby for more funding from Victoria for schools.
In response to a question about candidates’ views on advocating for more support staff, Michael Ewen explained, “The issue here isn’t whether we support support staff. Are the schools clean? They are as clean as we can afford to get them right now.” He went on to say that the issue is fundamentally one of funding. “We need to encourage the province to fully fund the needs of our students.”
On the topic of asking for more funding, Jim Goring stressed that “rallying, ranting and raving” were not effective, and said lobbying as a group along with the B.C. School Trustees Association would be the way he’d want to go about it.
Lisa Graham pointed out that there was no problem in demonstrating need in the district, saying, “The current levels of funding are not sufficient. There are many, many more needs than there are dollars to meet those needs, whether it be for special needs supports, more custodians, technology for teachers … all those things take money.”
MaryAnn Mortensen agreed, saying, “I think it’s a given that we need more money in public education and that we need to look at our own finances.”
And James Janzen said that lobbying for funding was “one of the primary roles of trustees in B.C. – and it’s too bad that it is.”
Other notable quotes from the evening:
- “I was ensured by one employer that I was a successful failure at almost everything. Vote for me for school trustee!” – James Bell, who is also running for council.
- “I’m a huge fan of technology. The world is moving very, very quickly and if we want our students to keep up in the world they need that exposure to technology. We need to bring in every piece of equipment we can reasonably afford that would give our students these tools. We need to make sure our computer labs are up to date, the equipment is up to date.” – Glen Richmond
- “There’s nothing wrong with a conflict of interest. There’s a great deal wrong with an undeclared conflict of interest. People have lost faith in the decision-making process because they perceive there are a lot of conflicts that are not being declared.” – Casey Cook
- “Communications between school board trustees and PACS & DPAC is vital. It’s a function of a trustee to have a connection with the people, not just the issues. There’s a huge difference between hearing the issues via email and hearing the issues in person.” – MaryAnn Mortensen
- “I believe we need to take the time to listen to all groups.” – James Pepa
- “When it comes down to it, you’re not going to make a decision based on how many sign up or how many sign a petition. You’re going to make decisions that are best for the children in this district.” – David Phelan
- “People are very disappointed in the lack of progress for schools. People were disappointed that the money went elsewhere and not to students.” – Jonina Campbell
- “Whenever we make a decision about anything we have to ask where is the child in this decision. If it’s not the girls and boys of New Westminster, we need to go back and think again.” – James Janzen