The Vernon School District has cancelled spring break trips in following with the province's health recommendations amide COVID-19. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)

Vernon school trustee candidates face off in forum

Voters in Vernon, BX and Silver Star can join May 18 virtual meeting

Voters have a chance to hear from those vying for a seat on the Vernon School Board tonight.

An all-candidates forum takes place Tuesday, May 18 at 7 p.m. hosted by the Vernon District Parents Advisory Council with Vernon Teachers Association and CUPE5523.

There are four candidates: Julie Melanson, Christie Tujik, Philipp Gruner and Jenelle Brewer.

Voters in Vernon and electoral areas B (BX-Swan Lake) and C (Silver Star-BX) can register for the meeting at https://ca01web.zoom.us/meeting/register/u5YufuqvrjguHNVLU3OgBMhkvQhsf7yEHDcT

Advance voting opportunities take place Wednesday, May 19 and Wednesday, May 26 at the school district office, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The election takes place Saturday, May 29 for the balance of the four-year term, which ends November 2022, following the death of Mollie Bono.

“Between the forum and written questionnaire we are confident Vernon voters will have the information they need to make an informed choice at the polls to benefit the students of today and the next generation of learners,” DPAC president Gladys Fraser said. “Our Trustees are elected to ensure SD22 is a great place to learn and grow and a great place to work. They need skilled hands on deck to make that happen.”

READ MORE: Four vie for Vernon school trustee spot

Candidates were also posed with questions in advance of the forum. Here are a few of their answers.

What do you believe to be the pressing issues within our school district?

Brewer: “Increasing demands for schools and educators to be community services and limited funding for these initiatives. Uncertainty around how long the current regulations related to COVID will be in place and the subsequent challenges to budget forecasting as the funding was identified as a one-time grant. Demands on staff have increased stress for everyone as we implement COVID protocols. For some, even just being in the school environment creates stress and anxiety.

“Individual Education Planning (IEP), as more students have additional learning needs identified, the lineup builds for access to assessment and support resources. Cutting wait times for assistance must be a priority. COVID created some additional demands, but mostly it revealed just how much the community and economy rely on schools, and sometimes to be more than it’s designed for. We need to work with the community to make sure that schools can continue to deliver quality education while assisting the community in general, and without creating an unnecessary burden for teachers, administrators and support staff.

“The impact from reduced enrolment from international students both as it relates to budget and educational programs.”

Gruner: “My platform is built around three specific overarching themes and I believe we can build upon these topics: financial oversight, relationships, and transparency. One of my main suggested initiatives is the creation of a financial subcommittee that is tasked to regularly review financial performance, work with administration to collaborate on creating the annual budget and provide meaningful participation into the budget discussion for partner groups and the public.

“The most significant relationship challenge currently lies between the school district and the DPAC. For a variety of reasons, I believe both groups simply misunderstand each others’ intentions, and a new trustee may be in a unique position to try to resolve and/or mediate a solution to the current situation. After speaking with the two primary partner unions within the district, there is a feeling that the communication between the school district and the unions could be improved. I believe information from the school district is available, but it is very difficult to find. Transparency is not just about providing information; it is also about providing information that is easily accessible. I believe there are innovative opportunities to improve accessibility to information within School District 22.”

Melanson: “I believe we need to ensure there is effective communication with stakeholders, including building effective mechanisms to include meaningful participation in board processes, strengthening relationships between the board and their staff groups CUPE5523, VTA and Principals and Vice Principals Association (when staff feel valued and included, they are much more likely to feel that they have a stake in how an organization fulfills its mandate), and developing a district climate action plan (organizations across the province [including other school boards] understand that collectively we have run out of time to analyze this further- it’s time for action).

Tujik: “I believe going forward the school district would be wise to put money aside in the area of mental health related to COVID. I think in the next couple of years we will see the effect the pandemic has had on our children and staff. I also believe the school district may need to revisit some of its other policies to make sure they are up to date. For example, the school district has worked hard over the past few years to update its transportation policy.

“The district budget is always one in which we need to make sure we are doing our best to make sure funds are being implemented in areas of need. I feel the budget process could be more transparent. Where are the funds coming from? Where are they going? If not used, what happens them?”

Please describe your past experiences either working for or on a governance board. What made you effective in your role?

Brewer: “My experience includes two terms in an elected position on the Okanagan Indian Band council, which is similar to city council. The differences for on-reserve governance are the responsibilities for education, a school, social development and health, a daycare, and title and rights. I participated in governance training, strategic planning, capital planning, and held a seat on the Aboriginal Education Committee for School District 22. I have a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

“Where I think I am effective in a governance role is in my prioritization of planning, developing policy, and building partnerships with stakeholders; these are examples of my belief that planning creates an environment for proactive decision making.

“Additionally, I like to be knowledgeable and, fortunately, I enjoy reading legislation and policy documents. Moreover, I tend to operate from a visionary perspective. As such, I approach decision-making using critical thinking, assessing risks, while seeking out as many resolutions as possible for the situation at hand. Finally, I am an effective communicator and an active listener; and I’ve brought these attributes to the other boards I’ve sat on. These include North Okanagan Columbia Shuswap United Way, O’Keefe Ranch, and as the treasurer of an Independent School Board.”

Gruner: “The City of Edmonton appointed me as board member to Northlands (non-profit organization with over $100 million in annual revenues). President of DKK – German language pre-school in Edmonton (three locations with six teachers). President and chair of the Vernon Immigrant Services Society (12 employees and government-funded non-profit organization). 13 years working as a senior executive for a NYSE listed publicly traded company.

“I believe my authenticity and proper preparation for board-related meetings and activities made me an effective participant in those roles. Understanding the audience and approaching fellow colleagues and board members the right way are all strategies I employ to be as effective as possible, regardless of if I am in front of a governance board or part of a governance board. I have always been a hands-on type of individual regardless of position or title. I am a firm believer that leaders should try to understand the material that is before them, especially if it’s a subject matter that is not a natural strength. I also try to be as authentic as possible in everything I do.”

Melanson: “I am an effective board member on a governing board as I tend to stick to the point when discussing matters while keeping the broader picture in mind. In this case, I will always be asking, what is in the best interest of the students? In past positions, I have worked through difficult situations between staff and board members, and found the most effective solution to this was through conversations with all parties involved.

“My approach is very much a collaborative approach, working with others to get the best result, and not about who gets the credit. A good example of this was working with the Okanagan Rail Trail team to create the society and to work together towards the purchase of the land. By working collaboratively we were able to achieve the goal of the purchase in the short timeframe that we had.”

Tujik: “I have had the opportunity to be on a few governance boards, whether it be a DPAC rep, PAC executive or member of an environmental board. I am most effective when I have had a chance to listen to those involved and hear all points of view. Then I can ask questions to get more input and make an informed decision.”

There are concerns all around the province about the changing of the provincial funding model, yet there is proof that students with IEPs are on the rise. In your role(s) in the past couple of years and your work from now on, how do you demonstrate support for students with disabilities?

Brewer: “I have raised a child with a disability who needed an Individualized Education Plan. I understand the level of resources required to develop and implement one of these plans, and the level of parent commitment required. I have experience with someone with a disability, so I understand the commitment it takes from all parties to raise a successful individual. However, I do not see people with disabilities, I see people with potential, and these supports are essential to help them build on their strengths for a successful future.

“I find Vernon is not a place that is disability-friendly from an access perspective, I would like to ensure that the schools create an environment so people with physical disabilities are not limited to participate because of limitations of physical access. Let us not forget that not all disabilities are visible one’s anxiety, autism, other diagnoses can be invisible, and we need to be mindful of that and support all students to have access to quality education in our system. The School District has a 145-page Mental Health and Service document, I would like to see that condensed and distributed widely for families to access. Again, are there grants to support these initiatives?”

Gruner: “This is a subject that is very near and dear to me personally, as our family is directly affected by these decisions. We have also experienced some of the challenges families face when disabilities are discovered and brought to the school’s attention. Through my current professional position as CEO of Vernon Immigrant Services, we see a new level of mental-related disabilities within young children due to trauma from situations that they fled from in their home countries. The current support mechanisms in place are not enough. Administration is put in a very difficult situation year after year trying to allocate resource teachers and educational assistance within the school to help children who are in need. The number of students requiring assistance almost always outstrips the available support staff due to the current funding qualification for certain disabilities.

“As a board of education, I believe we need to continuously lobby and push the provincial funders, to enhance funding and widen the qualification criteria for students requiring support. We also need to ensure our teachers and staff are equipped to handle trauma-related challenges.”

Melanson: “It is very important to have the needed supports in place (Educational Assistants, school-based resource teachers, related professionals like speech pathologists, ESL teachers, etc). We need to make sure to take a team approach for this work and to listen to the folks on the front lines. It is a given that the need for these students will be increasing. If funding is going down it will require creativity and efficiency and support for those in the roles to ensure there is continuity within the team. The board can also support requesting additional funding.”

Tujik: “In the past few years B.C. has updated their curriculum based on the fact that each child learns differently. If this holds true there is more work to be done to better support the children in this district with disabilities. With each budget process, the district should make sure we have enough support for those who already have IEP’s. We need to take steps further by fighting for more funds at a provincial level to test more children and educate those who help support them.”

READ MORE: Letter: Vote for a new SD22 trustee


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