Chilliwack school board strikes down early French immersion proposal

The Chilliwack school board rejected an early French immersion program at Tuesday’s board meeting in a close 3–2 vote, with one abstaining.

The Chilliwack school board rejected an early French immersion program at Tuesday’s board meeting in a close 3–2 vote, with one abstaining.

The program would have required over half a million dollars in its first year, and one million dollars in annual operating costs by year five, according to an analysis by superintendent Evelyn Novak. The school district already faces an approximate $200,000 budget deficit for the upcoming year.

Trustee Barry Neufeld, alongside trustees Sylvia Dyck and Doug McKay, voted against.

“I think it’s just too much of a risk,” said Neufeld in light of the projected financial costs.

Proponents of EFI, including trustees Heather Maahs and board chair Walt Krahn, argued that such a program would draw students into the district who would not have otherwise enrolled here, as well as kept existing students from fleeing to school districts where an early French immersion program is already in place.

“I think there’s a good possibility we’re going to lose a fair number of students,” said Maahs. “There’s a lot of evidence in other school districts that offer early French immersion programs, and they have huge waiting lists.”

Neufeld disagreed that relying on potential future students is enough to support an expensive new program that would have drawn funds away from other budget lines.

“It’s an interesting argument. I don’t know that it’s a strong enough one to take to the bank. What, 20, 30, kids? That’s still not going to cover the major part of the expense,” he said.

The provincial government has frozen education funding, and the Chilliwack district will already have to dig deep to find ways to offer salary raises to staff who are due, said Neufeld.

To limit the financial risk, Maahs would have liked to see a pilot done with two classes, rather than planning for a permanent program off the bat.

For the last few years, a group of parents have been lobbying for an EFI program in Chilliwack. Members of the local chapter of Canadian Parents for French have committed to sending their children to the first Kindergarten and Grade 1 EFI classes in Chilliwack, and expected that the school board would be able to implement the program by the time their children were of school age.

“Three years’ time should have been enough time to implement such a program. We were willing to work with you. We were putting in a lot of effort,” president Jocelyn Thomas told the school board on Tuesday.

Thomas found the rejection of EFI disheartening, especially as Chilliwack parents have overwhelmingly supported EFI in surveys. This includes an EFI feasibility study released February, which found that 82 per cent of people who responded to the survey, a majority of whom were Chilliwack parents, supported introducing an EFI program.

“There’s no numbers on how many students are not enrolling in Chilliwack because there’s no EFI, but every other district that has EFI, is turning people away because it’s such a popular program,” said Thomas.

The members of the school board are aware of the demand from parents, but the financial considerations take priority, according to school board chair Walt Krahn.

“We all understand the need for choice. We understand that parents have interest. And we want to meet the needs of students and their parents within the Chilliwack school district,” said Krahn. “We are concerned about the extreme budget…the unknown at this point about what our budget will look like, and hence we needed to be very careful about making a decision that would have a significant impact on the budget.”

The school board was short one member, trustee Louise Piper, who is on medical leave. Her vote may have swung the results in a different direction.

School board members plan to revisit the possibility of an EFI program in the district at their annual planning retreat in August.