A rally held in Penticton Wednesday drew upwards of 80 people, waving signs at cars passing by Penticton Secondary as they tried to raise awareness that along with the city council elections Saturday, voters will also be selecting trustees for the Okanagan Skaha Board of Education.
“We want people to get out and vote, make informed choices, to know who they are voting for and what the trustee candidates stand for,” said Kevin Epp, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union. “We want to put pressure on the government, and we hope trustees can do that, to restore funding of the education system.”
Epp admits that an individual board can’t do much alone, but as a group they should be able to influence governments.
“All local boards can play a key part in this if they join together. I think trustees all around the province need to take control back of the education system, because if they don’t, then I believe their days are numbered,” said Epp, who goes as far as to suggest that the province could do away with local school boards.
The idea of a united front being able to affect change provincially is high on the list for some of the eight candidates running for four Penticton seats on the school board. James Palanio said it is one of the first things he wants to start working on if elected.
“Our enrolment is declining slightly, but we still have fixed costs that we have to pay for. The biggest thing is convincing the minister of education to change that funding model so we can be more accurately funded,” said Palanio. “We have to get the money there so we can educate the kids as best we can.”
Chuck Simonin feels much the same way. He’d like to see a united front also get after the province to settle the ongoing contract negotiations and increase funding to the system, so boards can deal better with issues of class size and composition as well as educational help for special education students, who he feels are being deprived.
“As a single board, SD67 doesn’t have that much clout with the government. One of my mandates would be to get together with as many boards as possible in the province and lobby the government for more educational funding,” said Simonin. “Cutting that short means they are cutting our students short.”
The uncertainty of not having a collective agreement is also a concern for trustee Shelly Clark, the only Penticton incumbent running for re-election.
“There has been no visible progress in contract negotiations thus far. As trustees, in a combined voice, we could ask the government to roll up their sleeves and move forward to bargain in good faith. I would hope individual teachers would put pressure on their union to do the same,” said Clark. “There are projects being left on the back burner and these things cannot be left forever.”
Getting those contract negotiations settled is high on Bruce Johnson’s list. The retired principal said that once the contract is settled, the new board can get to work on maintaining and perhaps restoring relationships in the district.
“We need everybody back working together, on the same page, for the children in our school system,” said Johnson. “You have to make difficult decisions, but more importantly, you have to all work together.”
Many top issues for the potential candidates come back to finances and budgets, which doesn’t come as a surprise for Epp.
“The newly elected board will have finances as the top three issues, in one way or another. And then the list gets really long after that,” said Epp. “I doubt that the newly elected board will have any choice but to move into a budget process for the 2012-13 school year, and that budget process will require them to find further cuts for the school year.”
It’s certainly a priority for Cary Schneiderat, who is concerned about a possible $1.5 million shortfall in the budget for the 2012-13 school year. He intends to delve into that right away.
“That’s the biggest thing. I will start poring over all the budget information, and reports that have been produced recently, like the transportation and facilities studies,” said Schneiderat.
Tracy St. Claire also sees the budget as the issue that links all others. As well as running for trustee, she is a co-ordinator with the early childhood education group Success by Six, and wonders about issues of integrating ECE for younger children into this school system and how it could be funded.
“It would never work if there is no money for it. The earlier you can identify developmental needs, the better you can correct them,” she said. “As budgets everywhere decrease, how can we do more with less. And that’s just one piece of the budget question.”
Kevin Andrews, who was a trustee between 2005-08, plans to work on continuity and co-operation with the many first-time members if he is elected on Saturday.
“The biggest task at hand is making sure students’ needs continue to be met while we deal with the strike process we are in,” said Andrews. “Ultimately, we have to support teachers in some manner to make sure our goal of educating children is met.”
Walter Huebert, the eighth candidate for school board in Penticton, could not be reached for comment.