French immersion was the dominant subject at school board all-candidates forum on Oct. 26, with half the questions asked focused on the subject.
Seven out of eight candidates attended the forum (Mauro Morrone was absent due to a prior commitment but did provide opening and closing statements by video) and 25 people sat in the audience at the seniors’ centre to ask questions and listen to the responses.
The forum was the only opportunity to hear from all candidates in person in advance of the Nov. 19 election.
Each candidate was given five minutes to introduce themselves at the start of the forum. The incumbent candidates generally touted their experience as trustees and the successes of the school district in their opening and closing remarks.
“We have much to be proud of in our school district but much more work is required to maintain and improve what programming we have the resources to do,” said trustee Annie Wilson, who spoke first.
Alan Chell, the long-time chair of the school board, said the next three years would be the busiest ever, as the district opens its new schools and deals with the excess facilities it holds.
“We need to continue to focus on maintaining and improving on our academic success,” he said.
For the challengers, the forum was a chance to present themselves to the public. Jewelles Smith quoted Eleanor Roosevelt and said she was running to support her two sons and others who require supportive learning in the classroom. She also criticized the provincial government for cuts to education.
“I believe that the experiences that I’ve gained while living away from Revelstoke will bring new ideas to the table,” she said, adding that she recognizes the current successes of the school district.
Elmer Rorstad, the former president of the Revelstoke Teachers’ Association and owner of Free Spirit Sports, touted both his educational and business background, as well as the fact he has a child in pre-school, as the skills he was bringing to the table.
Bryan Dubasov, the final challenger to speak, also spoke of his years working in the education system as an elementary school principal in Revelstoke. He also mentioned the fact he has seven grandchildren about to enter the school system.
“It is extremely important to me that we provide the very best education available for these kids just starting out,” he said.
When it came time for questions, it was French immersion that ruled the forum, with three questions addressing the issue in different ways. Sasha Emily Walsh posed the first question, asking straight up whether or not the school trustees supported French immersion.
The answer she got was a unanimous yes, provided the numbers were there, though Jeff Nicholson added that the district could look at alternatives, like intensive French.
“I support French immersion if the numbers work out, and that has always been our challenge,” said Chell. “The board in the past has worked with any parents that are interested in exploring the program. We would be glad to do so and it simply comes down to – is it sustainable?”
The next questioner was Stephanie Melnyk, who has been leading a group of parents to try to gauge whether or not there is enough support for French immersion in Revelstoke. She wanted to know whether or not the candidates would support their survey. The response time turned into more of a discussion that felt like a board meeting rather than a forum, with Melnyk elaborating on what she was asking for while each candidate responded.
She got a range of responses, with most candidates expressing support for her survey, though some were hesitant about their level of support.
A few questions later, Rory Luxmoore, a teacher at Revelstoke Secondary School, asked the candidates about what models of French immersion they would be willing to look at. In a lengthy pre-amble he mentioned several models. Chell was the first to respond, saying that right now the district had a full slate of work and the timing wasn’t right at the moment, though he would be willing to look at the issue in the future. The other candidates echoed his remarks, with some adding that they needed more information.
“I can’t tell you until I know what’s on the platter,” said Rorstad.
Between those questions, Chris Swayze asked the candidates how they felt about the net-zero mandate the provincial government had issued for the ongoing labour negotiations between the B.C. Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) and the B.C. Public School Employer’s Association (BCPSEA).
Most candidates expressed support for giving teachers a raise, though there was acknowledgement their hands were tied by the slow economy and the government’s mandate.
“I’m really unhappy with how bargaining is going,” said Smith. “I absolutely support teachers having better wages. They do an incredible job.”
Added Doug Hamilton, a union supporter: “I do believe our teachers are worth more money. The only problem we have is the provincial government. At the time being, we really don’t have any choice and I feel that we’re stuck with it and most of us are not going to be happy with that.”
Tracy Spannier asked the candidates how they felt about the expanded mandate for the district to look at education beyond the K-12 years. Once again, the candidates responded with unanimous support for the mandate. “I actually welcome it,” said Wilson. “But it needs to be properly funded by the government.”
The last question was asked by Stephanie Melnyk. She wanted to know what improvements the candidates would make to the school district, if elected.
Doug Hamilton said he didn’t think there needed to be any major changes. Nicholson said improvement in French instruction was a priority. Jewelles Smith said her main goal was to improve support for special needs students.
Bryan Dubasov said his biggest issue was finding a replacement for superintendent Anne Cooper, who is rumoured to be retiring within the next few years. Elmer Rorstad said he wanted to find better ways to prepare students for the work force. Annie Wilson said funding stability was her biggest priority and Alan Chell said looking into more personalized, 21st century learning was his main goal.
There were other issues brought up throughout the forum, notably what to do with the empty schools once the new elementary school opens next fall and the operational savings created from moving into two new buildings.
Mainly, the incumbent candidates cited their experience as trustees.