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Okanagan Skaha school trustee candidates talk low enrolment, program cuts and more at forum

Seven seats are available around the board of education table

Okanagan-Skaha school trustee hopefuls answered questions on school closures, budgets, daycare in schools and even the stipend increase the trustees got last year at a forum held Tuesday night.

Summerland candidates Erin Hayman, Maureen Harrington and rural candidate Jesse Martin were absent from the meeting held at the School District office.

When it came time to talk about the long term facilities plan, the majority of candidates said it’s time to make some tough decisions and ‘right size’ the district after decades of declining enrolment.

“I was involved in the school closure as a PAC chair of Carmi Elementary,” said incumbent trustee Tracy Van Raes. “I know there are a lot of emotions involved. But that’s been six years of heating and maintaining facilities that sit half full.”

She said the cost of keeping all schools open has meant Summerland Secondary doesn’t have a band program and Princess Margaret doesn’t have calculus.

Incumbent trustee Barb Sheppard said budget cuts over the past few years meant the work experience program was cut.

“Work experience is an amazing program that provides job opportunities. That is a program that needs to be brought back but takes organizing and funding,” she said.

Incumbent trustee candidate Dave Stathers said he’d like to see a phased in approach but make the decisions sooner rather than later.

“It’s going to be a tough road ahead but I’d like to get it done by next fall,” he said.

It’s tricky to decide what is best, pointing to Trout Creek Elementary that was once on the chopping block and now has 30 new students this school year.

Incumbent James Palanio said no decisions about what school should close have been made and it will take a serious examination of all the data.

“We are down 2,000 students over the last couple decades. We’ll make the right decision, not the quick decision,” he said.

Candidate Kate Hansen said there is no denying something has to be done but examining all options is key.

“We could even examine eliminating middle schools and going to K-7 and 8 to 12 model.”

Incumbent Linda Van Alphen said she is opposed to closing any rural schools.

“They are often the heart of those communities,” she added. Van Alphen said she’d like to see the district get creative and look at offering those empty classrooms to daycares to fill.

This brought up the issue of pay and staffing issues daycares face.

“Queen’s Park does have a new daycare facility. From what I’ve heard is daycares would love to move into schools but they won’t be able to staff them,” said incumbent Shelley Clarke. “You make more money at McDonald’s than as a trained ECE (Early Childcare Educator).”

Several of the incumbents noted that SD67 has been a leader in B.C. in early learning so this could be a ‘lighthouse’ district for seamless daycare where children would transition from in-school daycare to grade school.

“I loved this in the Lower Mainland. It was transformative for our working family and gives the children a feeling of belonging and continuity,” said Hansen.

Rural candidate Karen Botsford said she is in full support of daycares in schools.

“There is daycare in eight schools in SD67. I fully support this and believe it will strengthen school communities,” she said.

Candidate Lynn Kelsey said she taught the ECE program at Sprott Shaw and knows all too well how low the pay is.

“You have to show people they are valued and I can tell you as a single mom, daycare was very important,” she said.

The candidates agreed to take questions from the audience.

City council candidate James Miller asked them to justify their 18 per cent raise they voted to approve last year.

Stathers said until last year, trustees were paid for 10 months of the year and he claimed they worked for free during the summer months answering phone calls and emails from constituents.

“Now we are paid 12 months of the year,” he said.

Another question was about bringing early French immersion to attract more students to the district. But candidates weren’t in support of the idea saying they don’t have the resources for many current programs let alone bringing in a new one.

Van Alphen said they tried it at Queen’s Park 17 years ago and it didn’t work. Stathers pointed out that Summerland Middle School just introduced French Immersion and was able to create two classes.

The general election to vote for mayors, councillors, trustees and Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen directors is Oct. 15.

READ MORE: Trustee candidates consider facilities plan and talk possible school closure

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Monique Tamminga

About the Author: Monique Tamminga

Monique brings 20 years of award-winning journalism experience to the role of editor at the Penticton Western News. Of those years, 17 were spent working as a senior reporter and acting editor with the Langley Advance Times.
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