New West school board candidates weigh in on family issues

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about my first impressions of the 2011 Civic Election Candidates for New Westminster, based on a non-traditional all candidates forum at Lafflines Comedy Club. I based my thoughts solely on the all important ‘first impression’, in particular, the issue of trust and authenticity. However, that doesn’t discount the importance of know what a candidate actually stands for. I believe that it is important to do our research as citizens and vote based on policy platforms.

I was invited to write an article for Tenth to the Fraser specific to family issues in the Civic Election. I am happy to have that opportunity. I put together a couple questions and sent them to all the candidates via e-mail- hoping to get a better sense of their policy platforms. My questions targeted two things:

First, it is my belief that part of the reason voter turnout is so low in civic elections is that many voters are unclear on the ways in which Civic politicians can impact their day to day life. I wanted the candidates to help me explain through this article, when it comes to family issues, what it is that they can actually do within their municipal offices.

My second question required them to be as specific as possible about what they would actually like to see happen in our city. I believe in the “Nenshi” mode of civic politics: “Politics in full sentences”. (Haven’t heard of Nenshi? Calgary’s current mayor. Ran an awesome campaign based on grassroots consultation, social media, and a robust but clear policy platform). However, I also believe those sentences should be short, to the point and without unnecessary ‘fluff’. We often hear candidates talk about how they will improve or make things better. The catch is a) What does ‘better’ mean to them and b) how do you get from now to better, aka do we agree on the means to the ends.

I really appreciate the candidates who responded, I know how busy they are. Overall, I got the best response from the School Board Candidates, which reflected my general first impression that overall I was more impressed with the School Board candidates then the council or mayoral ones. I should note, I did have a few candidates who responded but are not included in this article, as they did not directly answer the questions I provided, making it difficult for me to include them in this format. I also had a number of candidates apologize for not having enough time to respond, which I respect.

I will share the candidates’ answers to the above questions in two posts. The first one (below) will focus on trustee candidates. The second will summarize responses from mayor and council candidates.

Part One: School Board

I know many parents make choices of where to buy a house in the Lower Mainland based on the schools, their reputation and their programs of choice. In clarifying what the school board can impact, the answer from Mary Ann Mortensen was that, “our Board of Education trustees are responsible for improving student achievement.” The School board can impact this by allocating budget (which comes from the provincial government) to ‘programs of choice’ such as “special needs, apprenticeship programs, drama and music, sports programs, international baccalaureate, adult education, self directed learning. It would also include after school care, child care, special counselling services.” Says Brenda McEachern Keen. The School Board can also provide community access for recreation programs, according to David Phelan. It is important to note, however, that the school board is not directly responsible for providing day care and can not change the curriculum, though it can advocate as such.

So given that range of what the school board can actually do, the second thing I asked the candidates is to be specific in terms of what they would like to see happen. To do this, I asked them to specific programs or policies (essentially, things they spend budget dollars on) they would like to see stop, reduced, improved, created and advocated to other levels of government. Essentially, I wanted the meat of their campaign platform. This is the part that really got at the heart of the issues for the school board. Here were some of my favorite responses:

Stop:

Jim Goring: “In the past Boards have passed a “Needs Budget.” This has not been effective, takes staff, increases costs and distracts focus. There are alternative methods to look at budgeting to establish needs and make decisions.”

Mary Ann Mortensen: “Creating policies without first creating a Mission and Vision statement through consultation with the community.”

Reduce:

Brenda McEachern Keen: “Participating in the day to day management of the district. This is properly delegated to our capable executive administrators with periodic review by the board.”

Glen Richmond: “Overcrowding in our schools.”

Improve:

James Janzen: “I think the School Board could communicate better with the wider community about what we do and how we are doing. We are doing well and more people should know about that!”

David Phelan: “We need to organize community walks, perhaps work with the PACS so students can partake in an active way of getting to school…. Develop local connections to farmer’s markets, community gardens and Farm to School programs that will help develop healthy eating habits in our children.”

Mary Ann Mortensen: “More advocacy for Special Needs funding and supports, more advocacy for a review of Special needs designation, assess students earlier for Special Needs and gifted/talented, improve parental engagement in public education, improve communication, increase programs of choice as demand increases and room in schools increases (3 new schools), improve employee morale, and a host of others.”

Create:

Glen Richmond: “[R]e-establish the School Liaison Officer (SLO) Program (one part-time officer assigned to each school) for all elementary and middle schools.”

Michael Ewen: “breakfast programs”

James Janzen: “In the area of policy I would like to find out from the community if we need to offer more protection for LGBTG students or whether our current policies are good enough.”

Casey Cook: “Increased funding to support special needs, school breakfast and hot lunch program and many many more education supports and services.”

Advocate:

David Phelan: “Funding for more child care spaces, and having the various levels of government work together to create more child care spaces in our schools, and to create more Community Hubs.”

Conclusion

Overall, most of the candidates indicated a need to advocate to the provincial government for more federal funding.

For me, as a parent of a toddler, there are few things in particular that resonated with me and that I will be looking for from our newly elected School Board. Those things are:

  • Getting the new schools built
  • Programs that focus on healthy living: healthy food in the schools, walk to school programs, physical education, ect.
  • The option for parents to enroll their child in a program with a focus on little to no homework and a focus on critical thinking and problem solving, rather then rote memorization

Based on what I heard from the candidates, I am confident there are candidates out there that can move us in the right direction.

Michael Ewen wants more choice, collaboration and communication [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. 

Michael Ewen
Michael Ewen

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

  • What’s your name? – Michael Ewen
  • Do you have kids in our school system? – no, they have all graduated
  • What do our schools do well? – Increasing student achievement, and providing choice
  • What is the biggest area (aside from building schools) that needs improvement? – communication with the public, and trustees need to be more respectful to each other
  • What education-related idea or issue is most important to you personally as a candidate? – providing choice for students and support for staff as we move forward into 21st Century Learning

2. How do you think schools could improve engagement and communication with parents and the broader community? Select all that apply.

  • Identify a dedicated communications resource for the district (employee or shared services) to improve communications protocols and materials
  • Use social media to reach out to parents and the broader community
  • Increase frequency of public consultation opportunities
  • Expand public consultation beyond parents of school aged kids to include those with preschool kids and concerned community members

3. Why should residents who don’t have children care about school board issues?
Beyond the democratic and economic argument about a well educated work force being more able to contribute to the development and hopefully evolution of our economy, residents should care that our schools are more fully utilized for the community. Due to budgetary constraints we are looking at a new policy that will see us charging our community user groups. We should be continuing the practice of keeping these facilities open and available to our community, at little or no cost.

4. Which of the following statements most closely represents your views on bottled water in schools?
Ban it. Metro Vancouver’s tap water is the best in the world. There’s no need to add more plastic to our landfills.

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)?
Definitely – choice is good.

6. What will you do to expedite building the new schools?
We have completed our agreements with the city and are now waiting for the Province to approve the land exchanges before moving forward to Treasury Board (the next step). We need to continue to work collaboratively with the Province and City

7. Would you support prioritizing the construction of the new high school before the other new schools planned for the district?
No

8. What should be done with tiny Hume school?
Keep it open – the families that it serves need a school they can walk to, plus smaller classes are nice for the kids
The Board made a unanimous commitment to Hume after 2 years of dithering to set in place a process for Hume to try to grow back to 60 – 90 students. That process is due to report back in March/April of next year. We should wait for this process to complete and give Hume a couple of years to grow. It seems ridiculous to me that with 7 new modular classrooms we should be looking at closing a school that could help relieve some of the pressures.

9. What more do you think schools could do to improve the health of children? (physical activity, healthy eating habits, etc.)
We need to look at our curriculum as we move forward in 21st Century learning. We need to have more personalized learning and less of the current often too boring curriculum. We need to work with the Provincial Government to make these changes. Once those changes have been made, and I believe that they are coming in the next year, we need to emphasis that we all need to put healthy living as the central core of the new curriculum, and build time and effort for that into every day. All too often teachers don’t feel they have the time to focus on healthy living because of all of the Provincial Learning Outcomes that they feel they are required to focus on, we need to provide them with that time.

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)
Great idea, I support it.

If you’d like to know more about Michael Ewen you can find him on Twitter:  http://twitter.com/msewen

Speaking of school budget shortfalls

The Vancouver Sun reports that New Westminster will ask school district managers to come back to the classroom as teachers to help offset costs for substitutes due to the $2 million shortfall.

School district managers could be teaching in New Westminster classrooms next month as part of an urgent plan by the district to eliminate a $2-million shortfall without laying off staff.
Senior managers from the board’s head office will work as teachers on call from January until June in a move estimated to save $19,000. A manager is also expected to fill in as vice-principal at John Robson elementary to save $15,000.
More substantial savings are expected through cuts to school budgets ($818,000) and operations and maintenance ($325,000), according to a plan approved by trustees this week. District staff will talk to partner groups early in the new year to determine how such savings can be achieved with only six months left in the school year.

School Trustee Michael Ewen is quoted as saying he likes the idea of senior managers spending time in the classroom, because the experience would benefit them when making decisions that would affect students. 

A comment on the story by a Sun reader, on the other hand, points out: “One might be cynical enough to suggest that many of the folks who ‘manage’ are those who hated the classroom in the first place and thought they were moving up some ladder to escape the long hours and miserable conditions of the classroom drudge.”
Ooooh, snap.