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Candidates jockey at Citizen forum

At one point in Wednesday night's trustee forum, candidates were asked to justify the board's existence in a cash-strapped district.
Brenda Hooker is running for a second term on the School District 57 board of trustees.

At one point in Wednesday night's trustee forum, candidates were asked to justify the board's existence in a cash-strapped district.

Incumbent Brenda Hooker and her counterpoints, first-timers Sheldon Harris and Eric Depenau, told a room of more than 75 people that the school board has a strong purpose.

"Folks may not agree with every decision the board makes, but at least we have local advocates," said Hooker, adding board makes up .001 per cent of the budget and said it was the reason an LGBTQ policy exists.

"Every community and every school district is diverse and different," she said. "We do need to take a good look at reports that have been done about school board governance and how we govern ourselves and how we be accountable to our public."

The forum was more of a friendly conversation than a competition between candidates, where veterans took on first-timers - many who likely hope the Nov. 15 voting pattern follows the last election, where five of the seven board members were new trustees.

Seventeen of the 18 candidates presented to a full room at the College of New Caledonia. Chris Stern was the lone runner missing from this verbal race.

The forum, hosted by The Citizen and CBC Radio asked candidates in groups to address their position on six subjects: choosing what high school best to close given there are 900 fewer kids in the 10 to 14 age range; justification for keeping a school board when that money could be funnelled into schools instead of eliminating them, like New Brunswick did in 1996; how to be more inclusive for LGBTQ youth; approaches to aboriginal education; district permission for teachers to speak their political minds; and preferred approaches to recycling or disposing of school technology equipment.

Saving money shouldn't come at the cost of closing schools answered three candidates in the hot seat.

Don Sabo, Denise MacDonald and Valentine Crawford all said they would resist any effort to close more schools. Sabo was the parent advisory chair in the last bout of school closures, and said even with a forecast of declining enrollment most of the schools are operating at least 75 per cent.

"Just because a school isn't fully populated, doesn't mean you have to close a full school down," said Sabo, adding he found the question's premise problematic.

"They are the centre of our community," MacDonald added. "Every school has a culture."

When it comes to inclusion, incumbent chair Sharel Warrington called for more support for existing programs.

"We need to engage our students more in this conversation," she said.

Bruce Wiebe called for more counselling, and suggested bringing in UNBC students to help, like he did when he worked in a district high school.

"That was a very effective way of helping students in need," Wiebe said. "Many students in need look to someone to talk to."

Candidates Dennis Fudge and Betty Bekkering didn't agree the board should set aside a spot for an aboriginal representative on the seven-member board, but like Trish Bella said it would be good to have more involvement.

"We also need to have the respect and understand the sensitivities around why somebody may not feel comfortable in the public education forum," Bella said. "There is history there and I think we have to be understanding and cognizant of bringing in the community into the education system."

The calm night ended with a little colour with two board incumbents, who said they were known for heated debates in meetings, on opposing mics.

Tim Bennett and Kate Cooke said they'd debated their question - junking old computers - the night before at Tuesday's trustee meeting, where the current board revisited how the district repurposes its technology.

Both were in favour of changing the rules, but Cooke noted she'd like to see more site-based management on purchasing decisions, as teachers know best what technology they will use in the classroom.

"How can we better target our dollars so that kids that kids are learning technology because that is one of the languages they need to learn," asked Cooke.