David Phelan wants New West to be ‘leaders in education’ [school board]

The following questionnaire was sent to all New Westminster school trustee candidates a little over a week ago. Questions were selected based primarily on comments from readers of Tenth to the Fraser collected via Twitter and Facebook, with a few of my own questions added in. Responses are published in the order they were received. Spelling/grammar are not corrected and candidates’ responses are published unedited.  

David Phelan
David Phelan

1. First, let’s hear a little about you:

  • What’s your name? – David Phelan
  • Do you have kids in our school system? – Yes, my 6 year old attends our neighbourhood school. Our 4 year old will follow next year
  • What do our schools do well? – Our school district offers a variety of programs to suit the needs and interests of our students. We have French Immersion, Montessori, and Home Learners Programs. In addition we have a variety of International, Community, Adult, and Alternate programs. In comparison to many school districts, New Westminster provides easy access to the facilities for different community groups.
  • What is the biggest area (aside from building schools) that needs improvement? – Our school board needs to ensure that the primary focus is on creating the best education system possible. This involves an understanding of contemporary issues in education and a desire to continually improve. According to a number of international standards, we have one of the best education systems in the world in Canada, and B.C. in particular. We need to protect what we do well, and be aware of current trends in education to continually move forward. We have the opportunity with our new school construction to be leaders in education.
  • What education-related idea or issue is most important to you personally as a candidate? – Everyone is in agreement that we need to build new schools, but we are lacking discussions regarding the types of learning environments we wish to create. We are a small city and the capital projects will have an enormous impact on generations of New Westminster students. We need to start these discussions now. We must plan our schools so that connections to the environment can be created. Innovative use of outdoor space in our schools could involve the creation of School Learning Gardens. Relationships with various community resources (such as the increasingly popular community gardens and farmer’s markets) should be explored, with the goal of creating a setting that can be used for learning experiences while at the same time enabling students to become more connected to their communities. The natural landscape and topography should be used to optimal effect, and could include options such as outdoor amphitheaters and seating. We need to create an environment that will allow technology to be integrated seamlessly, but also have the ability to adapt to future change and trends. We need to discuss the evolving role of libraries in our schools. They are places of reading, exploration, thoughtful reflection and group collaboration. The various programs that exist in our schools need to be protected. Since the new high school will have a smaller footprint, we need to develop strategies to protective our shops, automotive and culinary arts programs. This could involve partnerships with organizations in the community. The key is to ensure the school board maintains control of the programs.

2. How do you think schools could improve engagement and communication with parents and the broader community? Select all that apply.
Considering the financial situation in the district I do not think it is appropriate to take on a communication coordinator’s salary. The district announced a 500 000 deficit this year, and the school board has discussed closing down both Hume Park and Connaught Heights due to financial considerations in the previous 3 year term. I believe the money that would be diverted to paying for a communications coordinator would be better spent protecting our schools and programs, managing our deficit, and providing resources to our students. The district needs a more effective and efficient use of basic communication tools, and this starts at the beginning of the school registration process. When children register for school personal information is collected, including email. This process needs to be streamlined and we need to ensure parents provide work and home email addresses so that accurate lists for each individual school and the entire district can be created. Every year these lists should be updated when students complete their school registration forms. This will enable district staff to communicate very quickly and directly with all parents. I would prefer a regularly updated district website as opposed to social media, as individuals do not always use the same types of social media, and a pattern can be set where parents will go to one site for information.

3. Why should residents who don’t have children care about school board issues?
Our schools have strong connections to our community. The community uses our schools for a variety of social, community and athletic events. Community support and involvement is strong for many school programs, such as Hyack Football and the spectacular performances put on by NWSS students at Massey Theater. The Neighbourhoods of Learning areas in the new schools will provide a varied number of programs that residents will be able to access. We also have the opportunity to create connections to our environment in our new schools. This can be building relationships between our schools and community gardens, local farmer’s markets and Farm to School Programs. These connections can be used to promote healthy eating patterns in our children.

4. Which of the following statements most closely represents your views on bottled water in schools?
I think tap water is preferable to bottled water, primarily due to the negative impact of bottled water on the environment. There are others who will disagree with this position, and believe bottled water should be made available to our students, due to perceived health concerns and issues around choice. I understand and respect those positions. What is troubling is that rather than discussing bottled water in terms of the impact on the environment, individual choice, healthy eating or sources of school funding, the discussion regarding bottled water has turned political and partisan.

5. Assuming it is possible within our district’s budget, should New Westminster expand programs of choice to include sports academies (hockey school, for instance)?
Sports Academies are a legitimate option. When considering any program of choice several factors must be considered. There must be proper school personnel in place for the program to operate safely and be successful. We must look at a variety of options and choose ones that are the best fit for the district. In your example of the hockey academy, there is a geographic advantage because Moody Park Arena is right beside the school and access to the ice during the day is possible. There must be a long term plan in place, with terms of reference and evaluation procedures established, and any new program must not negatively impact current programs. Programs that are offered within the school, without paying for outside assistance are much more cost effective and accessible for students. . For example, if there were teachers on staff that were qualified and trained to run a hockey academy, the program cost less and be accessible to more students.

6. What will you do to expedite building the new schools?
The most important thing is to place the focus directly on the current and future students of our city. While people have political affiliations and opinions, everyone is in agreement that our schools need to be built. We need to start discussing the types of learning environments we want to create. Since the square footage allocated to the new schools will be smaller than the current space, we need to engage in thoughtful discussion to determine the best use of space in our schools. The protections of programs, such as the fine and performing arts, automotive and culinary arts apprenticeships, and libraries are a few of the areas that need to be discussed and planned. To expedite the building of the new schools I would work collaboratively and proactively with our city council, fellow school trustees, and Provincial government to create schools and learning environments to benefit generations of New Westminster students.

7. Would you support prioritizing the construction of the new high school before the other new schools planned for the district?
I would imagine every resident in the city wants the high school built as quickly as possible. But given the difficulties in the past and the problems with the site my concern is that hurrying construction will bypass many of the processes that are necessary for us to build the best school possible. We only have one high school in New Westminster, and this school must the varied needs of our entire city. We must make sure we build our schools so that they will serve these needs for generations and address all of the relevant issues. In talking to residents throughout the city, frustration with the capital projects is evident. While I want the high school built as quickly as possible, I believe it is more important to ensure we build exceptional schools that will benefit New Westminster’s students well into the future.

8. What should be done with tiny Hume school?
Hume Park Elementary has been mismanaged by the school board. Three years ago, when the closure of the school was first brought up for discussion, there were approximately 65 students in attendance. Parents who wanted to send their children to the local community school could do so, and those that felt Hume Park did not meet their needs had the option of sending their children to McBride. The school board brought the topic of closing Hume Park up repeatedly, exhibited inconsistent voting patterns, and as a result parents who feared school closure moved their children to other schools. The actions of the board have effectively removed the option for parents in the Hume Park region to send their children to their local community school. I think the Hume Park community should be given the opportunity to increase enrollment, thereby enabling the school board to maximize the use of district resources and facilities.

9. What more do you think schools could do to improve the health of children? (physical activity, healthy eating habits, etc.)
I think one of the main priorities is the travel to school. We have two new school sites that are problematic. The new elementary school at St. Mary’s will require students to cross over busy Royal Avenue and to the school. While the safe routes to school study has been done this will not be sufficient. Overpasses are extremely expensive, but we should find out the cost of a pedestrian overpass from the boulevard at Queens Park to the St. Mary’s School, so that the board can have an informed discussion on this topic. Not only would this create a safer walking route for students, but I think it would allow residents who live in Queens Park to access the new pier park by walking or biking. The middle school site at Robson is a problem in that children from the West End will need to travel a very long way to get to school. Possible solutions could be discussions with BC Transit to develop direct public transit routes to the school, and organization of supervised walking groups. Another issues is healthy eating. There is a culinary arts program that is very effective at NWSS. We need to make sure that a program such as this is protected in the new school. We should also consider options such as connecting with local farmer’s markets and the Farm to School program, with the goal of promoting healthy eating patterns in our students. As a coach of numerous sports at the high school level (rugby and basketball) and in our community (soccer and hockey) I am keenly aware of the benefits of athletics to our children. One of the biggest impediments to student participation is cost. That is why it is very important to promote these programs and build connections to the community. An excellent example is the New Westminster Hyacks football program. This program not only has built pride in the community, but the community has embraced the program through a variety fundraising activities. This community support has decreased the financial burden placed on students.

10. What do you think of the idea of expanding the use of school facilities to act as satellite community centres in neighbourhoods that lack such amenities? (For example, offering recreational programming outside of school hours or offering free space for nonprofit groups to meet, such as residents’ associations)
I think it is a good idea. New Westminster’s residents access our schools for a variety of reasons, and our schools and students have very active and strong connections to our city. I think it is important that we strengthen the bonds between our schools and communities, We live in a global world but we are seeing a shift to more emphasis on local connections. This can be seen in movements such as farmers markets, farm to school programs and buying locally. Our schools already have strong connections to our community. Our schools are used by Residents Associations, for Royal City Soccer, for community events, and for athletic activities for citizens. We should also expand the use of school space for before and after school care. One of the factors that must be addressed in community use of our schools is appropriate liability coverage.