Potential debate topics smouldered but were left on the backburner during Thursday’s public meeting of Cowichan School District 79 board of trustee candidates at Cowichan Secondary School’s Quamichan Campus.
The format did not allow for questions to be taken from the public or any debate between candidates. Each of the 17 candidates provided what amounted to a verbal resume of their backgrounds, answered a pre-determined question and summarized why people should vote for them.
All were kept on a short leash to comply with tight time limits.
Despite some hot-button issues surrounding the school district such as the firing of the previous board that led to the appointment of Mike McKay as official trustee for the last two years, a crowd of less than 100 people attended the forum — many of them family members of the candidates.
Ellen Oxman was part of that fired board for not complying with the provincial government’s budget stipulations. She states on her website she will support a balanced budget, but wanted to stir the pot about her reasons for voting for an unbalanced budget previously but obviously realized it wasn’t the time or the place.
She did say, however, that “we went everywhere we could to meet with the community” and “we committed to putting forward a needs budget.”
Oxman is aligned with Deb Foster, Kayla Barrett and Connie Buckner in their campaigns under the banner “Your Voice For Cowichan Public Schools.”
There’s also a group of seven, running under a “Students First” banner, that consists of Keith Chicquen, Rob Hutchins, Barb de Groot, Candace Spilsbury, Joe Thorne, Cathy Schmidt and Joanne de Lure.
The other six candidates running as independents are: Dana Arthurs, Amy Matamba, Roger Chin, Randy Doman, Amrik Prihar and Elizabeth Croft.
“I’m looking forward to working on solutions with whatever team the public votes for,” said Matamba.
The 10 candidates outside the Students First campaigners all vowed to put kids first in their decision-making as well.
Even though there was no opportunity for candidates to challenge statements made by the others, some sneers were visible around the table and a few potshots exchanged.
“I would not like to see a board of seven people who think exactly the same way,” said Oxman.
“We selected a group of people with a diverse skill set but are also independent thinkers,” Chicquen pointed out.
“We are a group of individuals from different backgrounds and beliefs, who have come together because we have the same values and objectives for School District 79,” explained de Lure.
“I joined the Students First team to respect the B.C. Schools Act and pass a balanced budget,” said Hutchins.
To balance or not to balance the budget was a question that still resonated with other candidates.
“I do not support submitting a deficit budget for all sorts of reasons,” said Spilsbury. “We, as a board, cannot be effective if we are fired.”
“As a trustee, I will work hard to focus all the available dollars we can to go into the classroom,” said Doman.
“I’m not content to balance budgets at the expense of students,” said Buckner.
“We need to be fiscally responsible, working hard to balance the budget,” said de Lure. “It is poor management to budget for more money going out than you have coming in.”
Another idea raised around the table dealt with amalgamating school districts, with Foster voicing her opinion.
“I say ‘no’ to amalgamation with Nanaimo School District,” she said, citing the amalgamation with the Lake Cowichan district many years go as an example where some areas were left out of important decision-making.
The idea of Ladysmith leaving the Nanaimo district to join Cowichan is one of Hutchins’ pet projects. Ladysmith residents are angry over recent school closures there and a perception they are neglected by Nanaimo. Hutchins states the shift will also better align the school district with the regional district.
All the candidates bring a wealth of experience in education — be it teaching backgrounds or administration, special needs, arts, previous trustee service, work with parent advisory committees and more — but did not provide much in the way of specifics, if elected, although a few ideas were presented.
“I don’t think the board meetings are enough,”’ said Prihar. “I believe there should be more communication with the parents. We should have round tables on a regular basis.”
Oxman suggested moving open board meetings back to 6:30 p.m. to give more working parents the chance to attend.
None of the candidates downplayed the difficult task that lies ahead for the district to get back on track after the last two years and all vowed to work hard.
“Being a member of a board is not easy and there are a lot of challenges in this district,” said Schmidt.
“With problems, come solutions.”