Open house showcases endangered program

One student leans over a plastic mannequin, its mouths agape, as she mimics an investigation for cavities. Another pulls back a tongue, pointing to hidden sores, gum disease, gingivitis and oral cancer markers.

On a typical day at the College of New Caledonia dental clinic, these students would be working on live patients. But at Sunday's afternoon open house, they were showing the public the services and learning offered at the decades-old program.

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It's part of an ongoing effort to save the dental hygienist and assistant programs which the college has said suggested suspending in an effort to find $2.8 million to help balance its budget. The college has said running the program, which typically has full enrollment, costs $1-million.

The college postponed the vote last month and instead held a public forum but by Friday, at the Board of Governor's next meeting, the dental community will have its answer.

"They're still recommending suspension," said Leslie Battersby, who has been teaching at CNC for 15 years.

The college said the decision to postpone the vote was "based on an overwhelming amount of considerable and thoughtful feedback regarding the potential program suspensions and changes in services."

But Battersby said it was because the college didn't follow its own guidelines.

"When they're making budget decisions they must hold one public forum and they must not make a decision for four weeks after the public forum," said Battersby, noting the plan was to have a public forum and vote the same day last month. "It was brought to their attention that that is not how the process is supposed to go."

After the March public forum, Battersby said they haven't heard from the board other than

some questions around patient fees and process.

"We were hoping that that might then mean there would be some dialogue, but there hasn't been," she said. "Nothing's really been transparent but maybe there is a plan B that we don't know about."

Rachel Harper is headed into her second year in the dental hygienist program, and said she expects next semester will be quite different.

She'll go from having 50 classmates in the clinic, to the 13 in her cohort.

"That's going to be a huge change," said the 20-year-old.

"It affects our learning process," said Kayla Schofield, also in her first year.

"We had no time to prepare," said Schofield, who tells of friends who were accepted by the program but left stranded with their lives on hold without another option.

"Another big thing is it's having a negative impact on the community because people who wouldn't otherwise receive dental care aren't going to get it anymore," said Schofield.

"There's a lot of devastation," said Kim Saliken, who is part-time operational staff at the clinic and will lose her job next year.

"I think it's really galvanised the community but whether that is getting through to politicians and college management is a different story. We really need the provincial government to step up to the plate."

Some board members came to the dental open house on Sunday.

"It's the perfect time to ask questions," said Sandra Ramsay, who joined the board in September.

She couldn't say if other budget-saving options were on the table because the board hasn't met since the public forum. It will meet in a closed-door session Monday afternoon to review all the information that's been gathered, she said.

"I'm just gathering more information. When you're making a decision I think it's really important to look at exactly what's happening."

But if no alternative is presented, what choice does the board have but approve the recommendations?

"This is one of the questions we asked... how we've dealt with deficit in the past," said Harman Dandiwal, a student representative on the board. "All these questions are going to be answered (Monday) from that point on we'll see, but by law we're required to balance the budget."

The board of governors is expected to vote on the proposed budget at its April 24 meeting at 1 p.m. and CUPE is hosting an "education north" forum at the college's Gathering Place at 5 p.m. Monday.

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