Candidate Gary Lewis addresses a crowd of just under 70 at the school district all candidates meeting for Hope trustee candidates Oct. 10 at Hope Secondary School. The mound of garbage bags behind candidates is the result of the Hope secondary textiles drive, with funds raised going to student activities. Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard

Hope school board candidates talk SOGI, successes and rocky patches of past four years

Six candidates are vying for three Hope trustee positions up for grabs in an Oct. 20 election

Six candidates running for the three Hope school board trustee seats shared their thoughts on successes and challenges over the past term, as well as their understanding of SOGI 123 and made their campaign pitches to a room of 70 last Wednesday night.

Incumbents Linda Kerr, John Koopman and Heather Stewin joined candidates Lori Izawa, Gary Lewis and Wilfried Vicktor at Hope Secondary School Oct. 10.

Successes in trades and higher education

The biggest success, highlighted by several candidates, is the expansion of the Careers in Transitions program and memorandums of understanding signed with higher education providers including the University of the Fraser Valley, Kwantlen Polytechnic and BCIT.

Koopman, who is running for re-election after his first term as a trustee, told the audience 65 students’ tuition, worth around $252,000, has been sponsored since 2015. He stressed that these are opportunities which did not exist four years ago.

“My goal is to start this exploration sooner in the earlier years, so our students stay actively engaged and excited about what they are learning so they can connect their learning to their future,” Koopman said.

RELATED: SD78 board meeting: Careers program grows

Stewin, who is running for her second term as trustee and is also a District of Hope council candidate, said when the program was first introduced she was very unsure how it would turn out yet it has developed into something she never could have imagined.

“It is changing the lives of children and giving them hope for their future,” she said.

Addressing controversy on the school board

A number of the candidates shared their thoughts on the more rocky parts of the board’s last term.

The board censured trustee Rose Tustian in 2016 for making disparaging comments about an employee of the board, a process which cost the board $48,000. In March 2017, a letter from trustees Tustian, Stewin and Cindy Ferguson to former Minister of Education Mike Bernier asked for a special advisor to review the board’s governance, which the letter stated was ‘severely dysfunctional’.

Tustian was censured a second time in January for allegedly leaking confidential information from private (in camera) board meetings, and excluded from all confidential meetings.

RELATED: SD78 board member censured, again

Vicktor, a former trustee from 1993 to 1996 and again when he filled a seat when trustee Chuck Jensen moved away, used his opening statement to address board governance.

“My primary goal in running is dealing with the governance issues because there’s no big secret that there have been some significant issues dealing with board governance. Tens of thousands of dollars have been spent resolving disputes. And it’s quite frankly not an acceptable use of money,” he said.

Koopman addressed head on points made in the letter to Bernier about alleged bullying and harassment, a loss of public trust in the board and a 4-3 split on the board.

RELATED: Trustees’ letter to education minister highlights 4-3 split in SD78 board

“None of the trustees ever filed a formal complaint, just saying these words does not make it true. A complaint can start an evidentiary process that searches out the facts. If the evidence bears fruit and is truly warranted, an investigation can take place which we did with one of our union members,” he said.

“A dysfunctional board would not generate the wonderful accomplishments we made to create a real difference for kids. If we were truly a dysfunctional board, we would have been dismissed.”

In her opening statement, Stewin acknowledged there had been conflict on the board and what she learned from it.

“(We also saw) the public unfolding of a workplace conflict between trustees, and I am very, very sorry that that became public. It never needed to be that way. It was unfortunate, but through it all, I learned so much. I learned to value each and every person at that table,” she said.

First-time candidate Lori Izawa, who has been involved on Parent Advisory Councils (PACs) and advisory committees, said while there may have been difficulties on the board, the process is still a democratic one.

“The board accomplished a lot, despite any impediments to initiatives that were intended to benefit the students. The opportunities were made possible through democratic process and the board fulfilled a responsibility, an obligation in addressing a valid employee complaint.”

In her opening statement, Izawa also endorsed fellow candidates Linda Kerr and John Koopman.

Explaining SOGI 123

Candidates were asked to outline their understanding of the BC SOGI educator network, its purpose and implementation. Although interpreted slightly differently by each candidate, overall their responses showed across the board support for the SOGI 123 resources which are educational resources on sexual orientation and gender identity developed by the province.

Izawa explained SOGI 123 as “a resource to assist in helping school districts and educators to build an inclusive environment for students, no matter what walk of life.”

“It falls in three areas,” she explained. “One for policies and procedures, two, inclusive environments and three, curriculum resources. There is, I understand, no separate and distinct SOGI curriculum or subject area and this is important to note that the curriculum is provincially mandated and adheres to the BC Human Rights code and it is not optional for public schools and school districts. The use of SOGI 123 resources is at the discretion of individual districts, but it was developed and approved by the Ministry of Education, the BC Teachers Federation and it’s most readily available as a resource in compliance with the BC Human Rights code.”

Kerr, who has served as trustee for three consecutive terms and is also the chair of the board, outlined what has been done to introduce the new material to the district and parents.

“Last October, our board decided to join the SOGI network of schools, that was in October 2017. Following that, the superintendent of schools Dr. Nelson sent out a letter to all parents in the district to describe what was coming and to invite anybody that had questions to contact her and other leaders in the district,” she said. The meetings, most of which Kerr attended, she described as respectful with learning on the part of parents and the district.

“I think we’re at a point now where if you were one of the parents that had contacted us I think you would say that we dealt with you respectfully and listened to you carefully and I think we probably allayed some fears, I hope, and imparted some information,” she said.

Koopman said through collaboration between school districts across the province, SOGI 123 can be seen as the starting point rather than the end point as ideas can be shared and resources improved upon.

Lewis, a former teacher and principal with forty years of experience in the education field, said this resource is crucial to ensure children are safe and happy at school, something he sees all parents have in common as needs for their children.

“If you took any group of parents, to talk to them about their children, and it could be a family grouping with the grandparents raising the children, or maybe its a single mom, or maybe its two moms or two dads. It doesn’t matter. If you talk to them and say what are the two things you want for your child at school? You want them to be safe, you want them to be happy,” he said.

“When we have bullying happening, for different reasons, we as teachers want resources to help with these situations. And the more learning we can give to children about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s acceptable, the more understanding the children have and the less bullying that will take place.”

Vicktor said there is a need to engage parents, as ‘a lot of parents are very upset and excited about this because every parent you talk to has a different story of what is going on.’ He called for a ‘factual discussion’ of the purpose of the resource and how it is being used in schools. Lewis has previously floated the idea of holding an open forum on the topic.

Looking ahead at teacher bargaining

Several candidates voiced their support for teachers, in response to a question about how trustees plan to persuade the province and the bargaining agent, the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), to reach a fairly negotiated contract with teachers. The contract expires this spring.

Lewis said teachers ‘deserve a big raise’. As a new candidate, if elected he added he would learn from experienced trustees what he can do as a trustee.

As a former teacher and husband of a teacher, Koopman said he is involved with the beginning stages of this work but will step back at some point to avoid a conflict of interest situation.

Oct. 20 is voting day

Towards the end of the evening, Koopman took the time to thank the audience for a ‘respectful’ meeting.

“I want to thank the audience for their respectful participation. If you’ve been watching Global TV, there are a lot of trustee forums like this that didn’t go well,” he said.

RELATED: The Hope Standard’s full 2018 election coverage

Residents of Hope can vote for their choice or choices of school board trustees at the Oct. 20 election, taking place at the Hope rec centre from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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Quotable:

Candidates were asked to explain inclusive learning environments, to someone who doesn’t understand the need for them. Here is what they had to say, in the order which they spoke Oct. 10.

“I think it’s fairly clear when you look at the B.C. Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it pretty well covers everything for inclusiveness. School districts are incumbent to do that, it’s dictated by the Ministry of Education, and it’s our role as a corporate board, to see through policies, everything we put together, that that’s mandated in the district. It’s basically that simple.

I would think, I don’t have the numbers but I think we’re probably pretty close, that we probably have more SEAs in our district than any other district in the province for a pro-rated base of population. That shows that we are attending to the needs of our special needs kids front and centre. And we care, we’re an inclusive board.”- John Koopman

“As a principal, the superintendent would always give us so much money to spend in different categories and of course part of it would be hiring of SEAs and special needs teachers. And we always went over and above of the money that we were allowed for that particular area…So we tried to put extra money into it. And then, on the other hand, you had the overachieving children too. You have to look at it at all spectrums. So we also tried to provide opportunities for the children at the opposite end of the scale. So what we try to do is be inclusive in the sense that all kids are being enriched and challenged at their level. And some of it, sometimes, will cost extra money.” – Gary Lewis

“I lost my sight about 25 years ago and if someone would approach me and say ‘why inclusion?’ I would say because every child needs to feel safe in their classroom. Every child has the right to learn and to have a safe learning environment. And your children are not suffering because they’re in an inclusive environment. Your children are thriving.” – Heather Stewin

“It’s important for student success and student achievement. For them to come to a classroom and not feel marginalized, whether by illness or sexual orientation or ethnicity or financial status. Whether they have one mom or no mom or two dads, they need to feel like they matter. And their teachers will have created learning environments where all the students can learn and celebrate together, starting from kindergarten. And I’ve seen that, our teachers are doing a really great job with that.” – Lori Izawa

“If we’re truly an inclusive district, the beauty of what happens at the school level will naturally communicate why inclusivity is important…everyone has a special gifting and it’s our job to find out what it is.” – Wilfried Vicktor

“I’ve often said that I’ve never met a child I didn’t like. I’ve never met a child that didn’t have a special something about them… Our job is to find out what that specialness is, and celebrate it. Make it possible for them to feel that they matter in our classrooms. So we do a lot of things — we have a very high rate of special education assistants that help teachers and help students individually and help collective groups.” – Linda Kerr


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