Funding request sparks ‘healthy’ debate over school district’s role

The Chilliwack school district will contribute $15,000 to help implement a plan aimed at encouraging healthier children.

The Chilliwack school district will contribute $15,000 to help the Chilliwack Hospital and Health Care Foundation hire a co-ordinator to implement a plan aimed at encouraging children to live healthier lifestyles.

Donna Dixon, director of community relations for the foundation, had hoped the district would match a commitment made by the City of Chilliwack and fund the position for three years. But faced with several trustees who argued the request was outside the district’s mandate, Dixon had to settle for a one-year commitment, with a promise to review the request during budget discussions next year.

Dixon, who briefed trustees at Tuesday’s board meeting, said the coordinator is key to a comprehensive community effort to battle childhood obesity and promote better health.

“Our community is currently facing an epidemic of children with unhealthy lifestyles that impacts on their ability to learn, their social development, and their risk of serious chronic disease,” she said.

The CHHCF was created with the mandate to improve community health, she said. Its major initiative for 2013 is the implementation of a program called “Sustainable Childhood Obesity Prevention through Community Engagement,” or SCOPE. The program was developed by the BC Children’s Hospital and piloted in Abbotsford and Prince George last year.

Funding for the coordinator position would be shared by the school district, City of Chilliwack, and other partners in the community like the Rotary Children’s Foundation and local physicians.

“There is unending community support for this,” said Dixon, “and this is your opportunity to be part of it.”

Not all trustees were convinced.

Trustee Sylvia Dyck said the request was outside the bounds of what a school district should be funding. “There is absolutely no way I can support giving $15,000 to anyone who is not part of the education of children,” she said. “Money is not available,” Dyck added, pointing out the district approved a deficit budget last year.

She also questioned the urgency of the request and the lack of financial information about the CHHCF. Said Dyck: “I think that’s reprehensible and I think it’s bad business.”

Trustee Heather Maahs agreed. She said everyone wants to find ways to help young people succeed. “Ours has to be educating children.”

But Trustee Barry Neufeld and Walt Krahn argued that children cannot succeed in school if they are not healthy.

The debate followed an earlier discussion over a motion to ask school district staff to “provide information on breakfast, snacks and lunch programs within the Chilliwack School District”

That motion, which eventually passed, also drew fire from Dyck and Maahs, who said it blurred the school district’s education mandate. “This is a distraction,” said Dyck.

Neufeld argued, however, that understanding what children eat is an important step toward improving their eating habits and ultimately improving their school performance.

“If they don’t eat properly, they can’t learn,” he said.

That argument was echoed in the discussion about the co-ordinator position. Board chair Louise Piper said the district had the opportunity to “take a risk” and show some leadership.

“I just think this is absolutely the right thing to do.”

The motion – amended by trustee Doug Mckay to a one-year commitment – was passed, with trustees Maahs, Dyck and Martha Wiens opposed.