School trustee candidate Karen Jarvis speaks during Wednesday’s all-candidates meeting at Sardis secondary.

Election 2014: Funding challenges dominate debate

School District 33: Chilliwack school board candidates faced a variety of questions at the first of two all-candidates meetings

Chilliwack school board candidates faced a variety of questions at the first of two all-candidates meetings at Sardis Secondary Wednesday.

But the reoccurring theme was a simple one: Money.

Early literacy, special needs, graduation rates, and class size and composition were all tied to the availability of funds – something the school district has limited control over.

Speaking to a cluster of parents – and a few rows of empty chairs – the 13 candidates promised to push hard for more funding from government, or do a better job with the dollars they have.

There is a fine balance between the money the district has, said Silvia Dyck, and the needs it must meet.

Dyck, hoping for her sixth term on the board, said she is dismayed by the erosion of government support for public education. “I’m concerned that the education system for my grandchildren won’t be as good as the education system was for my children,” she said.

Several candidates picked up that theme.

John-Henry Harter, seeking to return to the board after a one-term absence, said the board must be more vocal in its advocacy of public education. He said even early literacy is affected by tight budgets that must take funding away from teacher librarians and education support staff and allocate it elsewhere.

Asked how much money the district would need, several candidates echoed the same response: “We will never have enough money to have the kind of education system we want,” said Marion Mussell, who’s seeking her first term on the board.

But clearly, said Walt Krahn, a former school principal looking for a second term, the 2.3 per cent increase in education funding over the past few years, is not enough.

The district does have some discretion over how it can spend the Learning Fund, which is designed to top up school budgets and address specific needs. That money, said Krahn, should be spent in consultation and collaboration with individual schools.

Because of the tight funds, said incumbent trustee Heather Maahs, every effort must be made to ensure money is being spent efficiently.

But should the district seek out corporate dollars to shore up its books?

Barry Neufeld said, maybe. Seeking another term on the board, Neufeld said corporate support can be a slippery slope. “I don’t think it’s right to use our students as billboards for corporations,” he said. However, there are individual programs like athletics that can benefit from that support.

Other candidates were less equivocal.

“I strongly believe that corporate should be out of public education,” said Karen Conway, who is trying a second time to get elected.

“Public education must be supported by public funds,” said Karen Jarvis.

But Rob Stelmaschuk, who’s also trying for a second time, disagreed.

“I’ll go for it; Why not?” he asked. “We need it.”

He said young people are already inundated with corporate marketing. Provided sufficient safeguards are in place, the money would help.

The candidates were also asked if enough was done to support local teachers during the recent labour dispute.

Dyck said the board had few options. “We were kicked out,” she said, referring to negotiations that were eventually limited to the government and the BC Teachers’ Federation.

Maahs said the board was in a difficult position. Trustees had little control over the outcome of the dispute. “What we did have power over was how we treated each other.”

Candidates were also asked about how well the current board has worked together over the past three years.

Ben Besler said the trustees, at times, acted like children fighting in a sandbox.

But Dan Coulter, who has only sat on the board since winning a byelection last year, said the trustees have worked well together.

They can still do better, said Paul McManus, who promised to bring his managerial talents, and a passion for an education system his children are still part of, to the board.

The lightest part of the evening came when trustees were asked how different the board would be if they were elected to it.

“Not that much,” said Martha Weins with a smile. She’s been on the board since 1990.