As might be expected hot topics at the forum for school trustee candidates Monday evening included the need to get a tighter handle on the district’s diminishing operating budget in light of falling student enrolment, and the ensuing potential for school reconfiguration.
Candidates also generally supported the need for a long-term plan for the district as well as greater openness between trustees, administration and parents.
Not all of the candidates were present for the forum that was organized and moderated by the District Parent Advisory Council president Rhonda McCreight and Cariboo Chilcotin Teachers’ Association president Joan Erb.
The forum was held in a classroom at Thompson Rivers University so that people in 100 Mile House could participate via video conferencing, but only a couple of people turned out for the event in 100 Mile House.
About 40 people turned out for the forum in Williams Lake. After being given a few minutes to introduce themselves the floor was opened to questions.
Following about an hour and a half of questions, the formal session broke up and candidates were given an opportunity to talk with people in small groups.
Candidates in attendance included Oleh Lazarchuk, Zone 5; Joyce Cooper, Zone 7; Jim Ritchie, Zone 5; Rob Zacharias, Zone 6; Doug Neufeld, Zone 6; Heather McKenzie (incumbent) Zone 4; Patricia Baker (trustee by acclamation) Zone 3; Jackie Austin, Zone 4; and Sheila Boehm, Zone 5.
Tanya Guenther, who was elected by acclamation in Zone 2, Area G/L also sat in by teleconference in 100 Mile House, with one or two other people.
While most candidates agreed the reconfiguration of schools needed to be looked at as an option to address falling enrolment only candidates Ritchie and Boehm came out directly in favour of the middle school option proposed in the district’s Trillium Report a few years ago.
Ritchie said that by continuing to have two Grade 8 to 12 high schools in Williams Lake students are losing elective options.
Zacharias said a Grade 8 to 12 high school was right for a time but the configuration doesn’t work with the district’s falling enrolment, so some form of change is needed.
Neufeld and Austin said they were not yet privy to the information, so they would need to make a decision on a middle school option and would need more information to make such a decision.
McKenzie agreed the current board had difficulty making a decision on reconfiguration because the trustees didn’t have all the information they needed to assure the right decision was made. She said the board needs to work more collaboratively together with administration on a long-term plan for the district.
Baker said there were also concerns that creating separate middle and high schools would increase the drop-out rate because research shows the drop-out rate increases with every change of school students have to make.
“We need to make sure the decisions we make are the right ones,” Baker said.
There was some optimism expressed that if proposed mines and other economic development proposals come on stream the school population may increase again in the future.
Boehm said that even if more people came to the city for work it is unlikely there would be the needed increase in students to keep two Grade 8 to 12 schools in Williams Lake, because people are generally having fewer children today than they have in the past.
Cooper said the board needs to plan properly for changes and that initiatives have to come from the communities — from the ground up.
Lazarchuk agreed trustees need to listen to what parents say and encouraged parents to get involved with their school parent advisory councils and the District Parent Advisory Council.