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Decision delayed on aboriginal school proposal

It will be two weeks before the board of education decides if they are going ahead with an aboriginal choice school this coming year.

It will be two weeks before the board of education decides if they are going ahead with an aboriginal choice school this coming year.

On Tuesday night trustees voted six to one in favour of waiting until January 26 to make the decision, after they were presented with the final report from the Aboriginal Choice School Development Team. It gave a list of 22 recommendations that propose a framework for B.C.'s first elementary school themed on aboriginal culture. It has already been determined that such a choice school, if approved, would be placed at Carney Hill elementary school where the majority of students are already aboriginal, and the community engagement is already strong.

The one lone voice of dissension was trustee Valentine Crawford who motioned for the board to go ahead with approval on the spot.

"It's not going to cost any more if we do it tonight or do it on the 26th," he said. "If we don't go with the aboriginal choice school, we'd still have Carney Hill there costing us the same amount."

The other trustees agreed in principle but wanted the extra time to do a proper cost analysis.

"There is no doubt we are going to proceed, but how we proceed still has to be sorted out," said trustee Lois Boone.

"I don't want any of you (on the Aboriginal Choice School Development Team) to go away thinking these recommendations will not go forward, but I feel it is important for the board to hear the costs," agreed trustee Sharel Warrington. "I don't think there is anyone at these tables who does not support these recommendations, but it is important to analyze what the costs will be."

The authors of the report were unfazed by the delay.

"I'm very grateful you are going to bring this back on the 26th," said chief Dominic Frederick of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation, on whose territory Prince George is located. "I hope it goes forward. It is the future of our children and your children."

Marlene Erickson, a member of the school's development team and also a member of the district's Aboriginal Education Board said she understood the need of trustees to account for all the costs, especially since all schools are in the process of being fiscally assessed.

"I remain optimistic that they see the rationale to make changes, for aboriginal students and all students who struggle under the current learning methodology," she said. "We know in the current system it is not just aboriginal students who struggle."

She said the feedback received so far from trustees on the 22 recommendations for establishing the aboriginal choice school gave no indication there were any deal-breakers in the lot. All the expressed concerns, Erickson said, were expected and had their own flexibilities.

School district officials are holding another public meeting on Jan. 19 to hear recommendations for chopping millions of deficit dollars out of the local education budget, and school closures are almost to be assumed and expected, said some officials. What then, if the district opts to defer opening the aboriginal choice school until 2011 instead of this coming September?

"I don't want to speculate on that," said Erickson. "I honestly see them (trustees and administration) recognize that the needs of aboriginal children are monumental and can't be ignored any longer. Now it is on the table for a vote - some place this debate has never been before."

Calculating the cost of opening the school, and for implementation of proposed programs down the road now falls to senior administrators. District superintendent of schools Brian Pepper said it had no bearing on the calculations underway already to rescue the district's bottom line from the current deficit. "We just have to find more hours in the day," he said with a laugh.

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