Stable funding for school districts and educating parents over SOGI-123 were some of the challenges West Vancouver school trustee candidates highlighted at an all-candidates meeting on Wednesday.
Incumbent trustees argued the school district needed their fiscal prudence, continuous relationship building and experience to face these challenges, while non-incumbent candidates said more could be done to improve the school district. But several on the candidate panel also sharply criticized the funding formula and how West Vancouver has become dependent on international students to fund some of its core programs.
All five current West Vancouver trustees are seeking re-election - Carolyn Broady, Nicole Brown, Sheelah Donahue, Pieter Dorsman and Dave Stevenson – they are joined on the ballot by two more candidates, Lynne Block and Charlotte Burns.
The all-candidates meeting for West Vancouver school board was hosted by the District Parents Advisory Committee at the Kay Meek Centre. DPAC had prepared questions for the candidates about funding, teacher retention, demographic changes, SOGI-123, aging schools and how to compete with independent schools.
“The needs of West Vancouver are very, very different from the needs in Prince George, or Surrey or even Richmond,” Broady said, which is why the school board has been advocating for the “flexibility to distribute our funds in the best ways to suit our students.”
Stevenson said the funding formula should be more clear and transparent rather than the “mystery” that it is now. He called on the government to “fund schools effectively.”
Block said she hopes the new government will look at the formula and “make sure we’re not punished for being good people and making more money because we have international students helping our budget so we can provide more of the things we want to provide.” She added that there’s a need for active lobbying for more money, especially for those students who aren’t funded even though they have learning disabilities.
Donahue called the funding formula “a bit of a shell game,” and there’s a need to “do away with structural deficit without reliance on international students.”
In response to a DPAC question on the pros and cons of international students, Brown called the international students “a great asset” and said it’s good to welcome students from around the world.
“We do manage the numbers carefully,” she said. Also, the system makes sure “our students” get the courses they want so there isn’t a “system overload,” and that international students are vetted so that they are sufficiently proficient in English.
The school district is more vulnerable than other districts because of the need for money from international students for core funding, not just “gravy,” Brown added.
Broady pointed out that the West Vancouver school district gets 14 per cent of its budget from international students, which amounts to $9.6 million. If they lost the international students, they’d lose 44 full-time teachers, custodial staff, band teachers and other staff.
“Until the government does fully fund the education system, we will be working in this hybrid system,” Broady said.
Stevenson pointed out there are about 530 international students currently in West Vancouver.
“It’s a compromise that makes education work more effectively in West Vancouver,” he said. “We know that Victoria has historically never sent enough money and the needs always exceed.”
In response to a DPAC question about SOGI-123, no candidate spoke against the resource package, with some advocating for safe and inclusive schools, others for more education for parents on what it is and others pointing out it’s a legal obligation for both public and private schools.
Donahue and Dorsman pointed out SOGI-123 was a toolbox to provide resources for teachers, not a curriculum to be taught. Dorsman said the school district might need to work harder on communicating to parents what the resource package is.
Stevenson said when he was in school, left-handed students had their hands tied behind their backs. “Some of my classmates who were gay and lesbian committed suicide because there was a lack of support,” he said, adding that all students should be supported to fulfill their potential.
Burns suggested parents who have questions contact the local parent advisory committee. “We just want a safe and supportive environment in our schools,” she said.
West Vancouver’s schools are largely 50 to 60 years old, but the school district is competing with districts like Surrey whose population is “exploding,” said Brown in response to a question about aging schools.
“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be advocating for our schools and our interests as well,” she added.
West Vancouver school district is doing a “great job” identifying various problems and working as fast as possible to fix them, Burns said.
Funding for new schools is an “ongoing issue” Donahue pointed out, but, she added, “there’s no money for new schools right now.”
Dorsman said the West Vancouver school board has a great relationship with the provincial ministry and a good track record resulting in grants to improve facilities.
“That’s what you get when you have a very prudent approach to your using finances and facilities,” he said.
Stevenson said West Vancouver doesn’t want 40,000 new students like Surrey so they can get new schools. “We prudently maintain our schools in great shape,” he added.