Penticton candidates spar on school closures

The Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce hosted the first all-candidates forum on April 25

Public education was a divisive topic in an otherwise cordial affair during the all-candidates forum at the SS Sicamous on April 25.

NDP candidate and Penticton city councillor Tarik Sayeed had some strong words for current Liberal MLA Dan Ashton on the topic of school closures in the Okanagan.

“Where was our MLA when all of the school board meetings happened? He didn’t show up for any one. This is fact-based. I was there for all of them. Kids were crying, parents were begging to keep their schools open,” Sayeed said. “I also know a couple of teachers who sold their house, right before the announcement was made to go start at a different school.”

However, Ashton was at multiple school board meetings held on closures, which he was quick to correct Sayeed on.

“I’m just going to ask Tarik to check his facts. The facts you said about the school board meetings was not true,” Ashton said.

Ashton also faced some criticism for the timing of the provincial funding which kept schools running in the Okanagan-Skaha school district this year from Green Party candidate for Penticton, Connie Sahlmark.

“It’s nice you stepped up, but frankly, why at the last minute? We had an elected board doing the best they could with the resources they had then you swoop in at the end after everybody is in an uproar. It’s a real shame the community was divided and you had to undermine the school board like that,” Sahmark said.

In 2016 Premier Christy Clark announced a $2.7-million rural education fund to save schools from closure, catching many school board trustees by surprise. The funding announcement came after many arduous meetings with concerned parents and parsing through difficult decisions on which schools would need to be shut down.

At one point legal action was proposed by parents who were critical of the local school board’s decisions.

“You probably all know that I went to bat and it’s a shame that it had to happen, but let’s get the facts,” Ashton said.

He cited 1,900 less students were enrolled since 2000 in School District 67 with 600 less in the last five years.

“It’s a shame. We need people here with jobs. We need people here with families to keep these schools full. There’s been a terrific amount of money put into the education system. You’ve all heard about the settlement with the Supreme Court. Not my way to do things. I’m known for co-operation and collaboration, but it happened. It started before my time, it was finished during my time and I’m glad it’s finished.”

Ashton said the amount of funding going into education right now in the province has “never, ever been seen before.”

“Is it enough? That’s the question to be answered,” Ashton said.

Candidates answered pre-submitted questions at the forum hosted by the Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce. Questions from chamber president Neil Wyper ranged from education to the economy and the arts. Taking the forum to the international stage with the first question, candidates were asked how they plan to help the forest industry adapt to changes in trade agreements with the U.S., coming off the recent news of planned tariffs to be imposed by the U.S.

Sahlmark said forestry industry sustainability as a whole is key for the Green Party.

“We’re not interested in being bullied. We’re going to keep negotiating, but we’re also at a time where we need to sort of restructure how we’re doing a few things, particularly in our forestry to make it sustainable,” Sahlmark said.

The NDP plan is to stop raw log export.

“The reason I say that is what it will do is keep resources in British Columbia and keep good jobs in British Columbia,” Sayeed said. “What we need is good, family-supporting jobs. That’s what we need and under the Christy Clark government we have lost that. Shipping natural resources out of the province is not the way to go.”

Sayeed said NDP leader John Horgan would be “out there in the states within the next 30 days,” to resolve the issue.

“For the people of B.C. I hope he can solve it in 30 days, but I think it’s going to be a lot more tenuous issue,” Ashton replied.

Ashton also called U.S. president Donald Trump a “bully.”

“We have to respond accordingly. I won’t let you forget. This isn’t the first time this has happened, this is a repeating incident with the United States,” Ashton said.

Candidates also took on the topic of increasing the minimum wage in B.C.

Sayeed echoed the NDP promise of a $15 minimum wage during the first four years of an NDP majority government. Sayeed also pointed to the NDP promise of zero per cent interest student loans “not only for current students, but for existing students.”

Ashton said there is a phased-in plan from the Liberals which is not going to culminate in a $15 minimum wage.

“Not in the four-year period Tarik is talking about,” Ashton said.

It’s a balancing act which also needs to take into account the profitability of businesses, Ashton said.

“I would love to see people earn a lot more than $15 an hour, but you have to ensure the business that they work for, the business that they represent or the business that they own can afford it,” Ashton said.

Sahlmark said the Greens plan to increase minimum wage, and cited the projects in Manitoba and the U.S. to give citizens a basic guaranteed income. She stated the men in the study worked 39 hours a week, and women stayed home five to six hours a week more than usual.

“But they were spending time with their children. They found that their grades went up in the classrooms. They had a lower crime rate, there was 8.5 per cent less hospitalization,” Sahlmark said.

Advanced voting takes place April 29 and 30 as well as May 3 to 6. General voting day takes place May 9.

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