New Westminster school trustees all-candidates debate sees no knockout blows delivered

Eleven of 12 school trustee candidates held a spirited debate in the library at New Westminster Secondary School on Thursday night, with no clear winner emerging.

The meeting, organized by the New Westminster Teachers' Union and CUPE Local 409, was heavy on questions about collective bargaining for teachers and support staff, the role of new technology in education, and the financial and capital project issues plaguing the district.

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While there were approximately 50 people at the event, almost half of them were seeking political office in the Nov. 19 civic election. At least six council candidates and two mayoral candidates - James Crosty and Vance McFadyen - were in the audience. Audience members were allowed to anonymously submit their questions, either directed at one candidate or to all candidates in general.

Moderator Stacey Robinsmith worked hard to keep order on an evening highlighted by people repeatedly asking the three prospective trustees who are also teachers - incumbent and Surrey teacher Michael Ewen, Richmond teacher Jonina Campbell and Coquitlam teacher David Phelan - whether they could represent all New Westminster residents without having to recuse themselves from teacher bargaining.

Phelan said because there's little bargaining done at the local level, he didn't see much of a conflict of interest situation. And because his wife is a New Westminster teacher, Phelan said that he would have no problem declaring himself in a conflict of interest in any matters where his wife's employment would be affected.

Ewen said there are clear legal guidelines set out for trustees concerning conflict of interest situations and he has followed those guidelines.

Campbell agreed with Ewen's stance and had to defend herself minutes later when somebody questioned what happened during her interview with the New Westminster District Labour Council and whether she made any promises to the council if she were to be endorsed.

"I made no promises," she said. "At no point would I ever make a promise (to vote a certain way). ... To attack my integrity is an insult, really it is."

Incumbent Casey Cook, one of five Voice New Westminster candidates up for election, admitted that the biggest failure of the board has been the "inability to bring home the capital plan, (but) we are as close as we have been."

Cook lamented the millions of dollars spent on studies and on work done on the capital project that still hasn't resulted in a new high school replacing NWSS.

Fellow Voice candidate Jim Goring said that if the new high school had been built, more money could have gone into classrooms and benefited students. He added that he believes one of the main roles of a school trustee is to lobby the provincial government for more funding.

"Ranting and raving is not very effective," he said. "I would be doing it in a considered, constructive way."

MaryAnn Mortensen, also a Voice candidate, said Voice trustees put the needs of students first and getting the capital project agreement signed is vitally important.

She also would like to see more money injected into the public education system and trustees have to find ways to get more resources into classrooms.

Several lower profile trustee candidates also had a chance to talk about what they would do if voted into office.

"I'm a huge fan of technology," said Glen Richmond, who said teaching items like SmartBoards and iPads could be effectively used to increase student achievement.

"Kids need exposure to that type of technology," said Richmond.

James Pepa said technology would be used to make the public consultation process between trustees and local parents easier.

"Newspapers, email and websites could all be used," he said. "We need to bring out the new and the old. ... We need to take time to listen to all groups."

James Bell, who's running for both school board and for city council, came late to the debate, but that didn't stop him from making some of the most entertaining statements of the night.

"I'm after grabbing every dollar we can," said Bell when asked if school districts should be looking at private partnerships.

And when asked what his thoughts were on programs of choice in the district, the former Vancouver Island school trustee joked "Why do you ask me all the hard questions?" before answering that he'd "like to see the expansion, rather than shrinkage of programs of choice."

Incumbent and Voice candidate Lisa Graham was questioned whether trustees should have to be held accountable for missing parent advisory council meetings.

Graham said that, as a three-term trustee, she has always tried to attend PAC meetings for schools she was responsible for, but she was remiss in her duties during the last term because of at least three family emergencies that forced her to eventually resign from her PAC duties.

"PAC meetings are hugely important," said Graham.

Incumbent James Janzen agreed, saying it's a difficult balance for trustees, citing his own personal situation of having his daughter move out after finishing high school and then having to care for his aging father at the same time.

But it's a challenge Janzen has no problem taking on because he said he's a strong believer in public education and he would continue to protect public education if re-elected.

The only candidate unable to attend Thursday night's meeting was Voice candidate Brenda McEachern-Keen, who had prior work commitments that took her out of town.

But in a move approved by Robinsmith, Goring was able to read opening and closing statements of behalf of McEachern-Keen.

After the meeting ended, Robinsmith admitted to The Record that while "it didn't go as well as I had hoped," he was still pleased overall with how the night went.

Osborne, president of the teachers' union and one of the key organizers of the night, said that while some candidates did stray off topic and there were some questions that were factually incorrect, the format had worked well for them during the 2008 election.

"If we do this again in the future, we will look at the nature of the format," he said. "We are always looking for ways to make this better."

Ewen also took time during his introduction to thank and honour the two trustees who chose not to seek re-election.

Brent Atkinson, with 31 years of experience and Lori Watt, with nine years, represented 40 years of expertise that the board will be missing after the Nov. 19 election.

"I want to thank Lori and Brent," said Ewen, "and in particular, Brent for turning around the business company."

School trustees are scheduled to hold their second and final all-candidates meeting on Nov. 10, an event organized by the District Parent Advisory Council and occurring the night before the Nov. 11 long weekend.

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