Vernon school trustee Perry Wainwright remained calm under pressure, as the only incumbent at the table at Tuesday’s all-candidates forum.
Sponsored by the Vernon Teachers’ Association (VTA) and the District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC), the forum drew a small but enthusiastic crowd to the Schubert Centre, who came to hear the candidates’ views on a variety of issues.
With the absence of incumbents Steve Connor and Mollie Bono, Wainwright was joined at the table by newcomers John Armstrong, Jim Hart, Tami Ryder and Kelly Smith, all of whom are hoping for one of four spots up for grabs to represent Vernon and Areas B and C on the school board.
VTA president Bruce Cummings brought up one of the evening’s hot-button issues, the district’s cancellation of recess.
Ryder, who has three children, doesn’t understand why the decision was made to cancel recess.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve dropped by the school and the teacher would be with my child, using that recess time to make the connection,” she said.
Candidates were asked if they would be prepared to reinstate the class size and composition language that was removed from teachers’ collective agreements by Bills 27 and 28. A Supreme Court decision gave the Liberals until April 2012 to resolve the situation.
Hart is a newcomer to the Vernon School District, but as a former MP and trustee in Summerland, he has years of experience fielding tough questions.
“I’m no fan of the B.C. Liberals — they messed up royally, and they have a lot of explaining to do, but I’m not convinced that class size is not a silver bullet to quality education, as different class sizes come into play for different reasons,” he said.
“Public education is underfunded, and I think it’s the responsibility of the trustees to make sure every penny gets to the students.”
At the last board meeting, the class size and composition report was presented, but many in attendance felt it wasn’t transparent enough, especially at the secondary level. Wainwright was questioned why trustees voted in favour of the report, with no discussion.
“We have two former principals on our board and they missed it, too,” said Wainwright.
Smith, a retired teacher with more than 30 years of experience, said this issue has bogged down negotiations for the teachers’ current contract.
“Class size averages are included up to Grade 7 and then after that they said they consult with teachers, we need to know the process and there is a lack of a lot of information here,” she said.
Ryder said as a trustee, she would do everything in her power to advocate for a return to class size and composition negotiations.
“I can’t see how a teacher can manage with more than 30 students, how they can settle them down and then be able to teach,” she said.
The Vernon School District receives block funding from the ministry, and many questioned whether this type of funding had run its course.
“The per student block formula maybe doesn’t work anymore, as we have some large schools and some very small, so I don’t think we can look only at individual kids,” said Smith. “And how can you run a budget without realizing that bills go up every year, how can the government not recognize this?”
Wainwright was in the hot seat for much of the evening, responding to questions on a variety of topics, including the lack of discussion of motions brought forth at public board meetings.
“When an issue is brought forward we discuss it at shop talk meetings, but maybe we ask too many questions there and not enough at the board meeting,” he said.
The recent proposal by the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) that teachers should turn over 15 per cent of their pay and benefits to pay for strike costs was brought up.
“Our teachers are not working less, let’s see how much the government is willing to financially compensate our teachers for all of the extra time they have spent outside of the class room and the long hours before and after school they spend in the classroom,” said Ryder.
Smith said every union has a right to collective bargaining.
“But I’m not sure that happens anymore in good faith, and it’s unfortunate that people don’t sit down at the table, as it’s a community-building event — you can’t just shove paper back and forth between lawyers,” she said. “BCPSEA said if kids don’t have a report card, that it will cause such serious and drastic damage to our students.”
She said report cards are just one method of relaying student progress to parents, and that teachers are continuing to communicate with parents.
“But withdrawing pay from employees who are involved in a Labour Relations Board-approved job action is wrong,” she said.
Armstrong said he’s not in favour of recouping pay from teachers.
“I do not feel that this is a viable solution and would only serve to worsen the relationships,” he said.
Many candidates feel a needs budget is something that is necessary in the 21st century, but Wainwright pointed out that part of the dilemma is that the board has a legal requirement to present a balanced budget to the ministry.
Armstrong said when he presented a needs budget to his board with the Vernon Ski Club, he received 70 per cent of what he requested.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get it,” he said.
Wainwright pointed out that a needs budget needs to be carefully considered, as the board is required, by law, to present a balanced budget to the Ministry of Education.
Bringing the business of the board back to the public domain was also on the table.
“We can’t effectively make decisions without the knowledge and expertise of all parties,” said Ryder.
Hart added that the board must be in the public domain, although there are times when in-camera discussions will need to take place.
“But at the end of the day, all votes and decisions are public and I will demand openness, transparency and responsiveness from the board on questions from the public and provide the required oversight of decisions made,” he said.