The public had the opportunity to hear from a dozen candidates running for the five Prince George trustee seats on the School District No. 57 board of education during the All-Candidates Forum held at Vanier Hall.
The forum, hosted the District Parent Advisory Committee (DPAC), the Prince George District Teachers Association (PGDTA), and CUPE which is the union for K-12 support workers and custodians, began with 60-seconds for candidate’s to introduce themselves.
However, some candidates took this minute to take a stance on topics before the formal questions were asked.
Cathy Fortin, a 70-year-old retired cab driver, began with “the anti-racism policies in SD57 are intensifying racial tensions, in my opinion. Children don’t see differences and pointing them out just focuses attention on that.”
She also said Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, also known as SOGI programs, should be banned from the curriculum.
However, the Ministry of Education is responsible for setting curriculum in B.C. not local school boards. On Sept.16 the ministry also released a statement affirming that all of B.C.’s provincial education partners for K-12 schools – public and independent – are standing together in solidarity in support of SOGI.
“Most children are unaware of sex until they hit double digits and are quite happy that way. We as adults don’t need to ruin their blissful ignorance any sooner than when they begin to ask questions regarding sex,” said Fortin, adding that she is unschooled in current policies and protocols but hopes to address these issues with fresh eyes.
“I got into this because Minister Jennifer Whiteside threw Prince George under the bus about racism,” said incumbent Milton Mahoney, who spoke next and has been a trustee for the past five months.
“I won the by-election and came on board and from day one this board has tried to silence me. There is intimidation, harassment within our system and if an employee tried what I did they would probably be fired,” said Mahoney adding he believes there needs to be a new board composed of brand-new people.
Once all 12 of the participating candidates introduced themselves, they were each given the same three questions to address with a 90-second response.
The questions focused on their views of a trustee’s responsibility in relation to senior management, how to address the teacher shortage and retention, and what accountability means to them.
Each candidate was also asked to prepare a value statement regarding Indigenous education in the district.
Trustee responsibility to senior management
The first question candidates had the opportunity to answer was, “if you are elected as a trustee what do you view as your responsibility in relation to senior management?” which was a question posed by CUPE.
“In terms of senior management, it is quite clear. School trustees are there to approve policies, budgets, and some cases procedures . We are not management, we're not the superintendent,” said Martin Taylor, who is a semi-retired municipal consultant.
“But we have to provide clear direction through our strategic plan, programs, policies, etc, So that's the board responsibility terms, giving a clear direction to the superintendent”
He noted that the superintendent is the sole employee of the board, and everybody else works for the superintendent.
“When those things get grey it becomes very concerning,” added Taylor.
Craig Brennan, who is a retired teacher and principal, said in an ideal situation the board sets the direction for the running of the district's day-to-day operations.
“When in harmony, an open and honest relationship between these two forces allows the schools to thrive and for students to learn and grow, everyone will feel safe and valued and able to do their best,” said Brennan adding he believes SD57 would benefit from an organizational audit as soon as the new board begins their term.
Incumbent Betty Bekkering, who is serving her seventh year on the board, said she felt the need to clarify that the board has completed an extensive review of its policies over the past term.
“And we are now at a point of just ready to implement those changes. And our policies very much reflect governance, and our admin procedures very much focus on the operational side of the school district,” said Bekkering.
“I just wanted to clarify that because it sounds like people have a perception that we're going to chaos and we absolutely are not.”
Teacher retention and recruitment
Another big topic of the night was teacher retention and recruitment as SD57 is facing a six-year-long shortage of teachers in all of its communities.
This has resulted in over 20,000 lost hours in support to students and district assessment data shows that vulnerable students are not reaching Education Achievement benchmarks in multiple areas as a result of that teacher shortage.
Each candidate was asked, “what are your ideas for teacher recruitment and retention and how would you advocate at both local and provincial levels for a fully funded teacher and recruitment strategy?”
“I think we have to support the teachers that we already have working in our district, and do a wellness scan to know what is currently working and what is not, and work collaboratively to support teachers,” said Shar McCrory, who served as a school trustee for the past eight years in School District 82.
She said the district needs to advocate at all levels and to the Ministry of Education for funding for teachers' support, incentives, and loan forgiveness.
Erica McLean, who is a former Indigenous education and school community coordinator, said she worked alongside many people who truly care about this work.
“I want to give them the space and the resources to be able to do that to the best of their ability,” said McLean.
“I believe it is within my skill set to help build a narrative for our educators that we are here for you. We support you.”
Cory Antrim, who worked as a teacher and basketball coach, said teachers need to be reading positive stories about change and hope.
“But what it really comes down to is that we will draw candidates to our district if they feel inspired by our vision and our progress.”
Indigenous education value statements
The forum concluded with each candidate delivering a prepared statement on their values towards Indigenous Education in the school district with each candidate noting the importance of Indigenous education in the school system.
“I am the person who felt uncomfortable in their own skin growing up because I was different,” said Damon Robinson, who works for the College of New Caledonia Students Union and is Gixtsan.
“And it took me a long, long time to grow into my role in life which is a fighter and I think that's a story that's very common for a lot of Indigenous kids.”
He said working together to have conversations discussing hard truths can solve issues and this is true for Indigenous issues across Canada but especially in the school district.
“I believe that building strong relationships with indigenous communities can foster healthy, culturally safe environments for all. Acknowledging the intergenerational traumas experienced by residential school survivors allows us to learn from our past and intentionally choose a different path forward,” said parent advocate Gillian Burnett.
“As long as gaps exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners, we will continue to work together and focus intentionally on closing them. We must have respect for one another and appreciate that we all have something to contribute.”
Voters will have to choose between the 13 candidates running for the five trustee positions on Oct. 15 but advanced voting begins as early as Oct. 5.
Prince George Citizen has also interviewed each candidate vying for a trustee position and those stories are available here.