As the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District (SD68)’s public consultation process enters its final four weeks, parents and PAC members are questioning how public SD68’s consultation process truly is.
Following a public discussion at the North Oyster Community Hall Thursday, May 30, Parent Advisory Council (PAC) member Stephanie Higginson made her frustrations clear.
Higginson is a concerned parent whose child attends Woodbank Elementary. Woodbank is one of four schools in the North Oyster-Cedar area slated for closure if SD68 chooses to amalgamate South Wellington, Woodbank and North Oyster elementary schools with North Cedar Intermediate School to form a “super-sized” elementary school housed in what is now Cedar Secondary School.
Scheduled for completion by September 2015, the formation of a new Cedar super school is one of several reconfigurations proposed by SD68 in its 10-Year Enhanced Facilities for Learning Plan (EFL Plan). That plan was approved in principle April 24 by the Board of Education and it is now subject to a 60-day public consultation process that began April 26.
Higginson, a former Ontario high school teacher and educational researcher, wonders why school board trustees haven’t attended public meetings or replied to e-mails.
“I’ve sent e-mails to every trustee, and I’ve sent e-mails to the superintendent and to Cathy Kelt — [Kelt] and the superintendent get cc’d on everything — and I’ve got not one response other than an automated response from Cathy Kelt,” Higginson said.
Kelt is the executive assistant to secretary-treasurer Phil Turin and SD68’s designated recipient of all consultation-related e-mail.
Commenting on the absence of trustees from Thursday night’s North Oyster meeting, Higginson said “trustees are elected by the people to represent us to the school board, so what should be happening is that the trustees should be at meetings like this and should be finding out what people like and they should be telling the staff at the school board what we want.”
Higginson said school board chair Jamie Brennan informed PAC members by e-mail May 26 that SD68 trustees “will not attend any special meetings as a result of this proposal [and that]they will only go to pre-scheduled PAC meetings because they don’t have time to attend special meetings.”
“These are major changes we’re talking about and [they’re] elected by us,” Higginson said. “This is the time. This is when you dig deep.”
Higginson agrees that changes need to be made within SD68, but she thought the “consultation period has been very non-transparent and it’s too fast for the type of changes they’re proposing to make.”
“We’re not talking about building a gym or closing a library. We’re talking about fundamentally changing the way we educate students in this community. This is the only rural community in SD68, and rural schools have taken a huge hit in the last 10 years in the province. It’s not the fault of the school district. It’s the fault of the ministry. It’s the funding formula and the way it works — it sucks.”
“I feel like they’ve given us an urban solution for a rural community,” Higginson concluded. “A school with 475 students is not why people choose to live in this community.”
Fiona Steeves, co-chair of the North Oyster PAC, said she’s presented an alternative proposal to the school board aimed at keeping Woodbank and North Oyster schools open.
“We’re looking at solutions. We’re looking at alternatives. And we’re trying to get these ideas to the school board so that we’re not just saying ‘no,’” Steeves added.
Steeves requested a separate consultation meeting for North Oyster Elementary due to its location between Ladysmith and Nanaimo, but she was informed that North Oyster parents will have to attend both the Ladysmith and Cedar public consultation meetings instead.
North Oyster’s PAC hasn’t been entirely stonewalled, though.
Steeves said a trustee has agreed to attend their June 3 PAC meeting, “and we’ve invited senior management and any trustees to come and we know that there are some coming.”
Steeves said she’s aware some parents have received no response whatsoever from SD68 trustees, adding that “I haven’t had a problem contacting them.”
“I know that other people have, and so I think it may be because I can say ‘I’m a PAC co-chair,” Steeves added.
Karen Fediuk, PAC chair at Ecole Davis Road (EDR) in Ladysmith, agreed that SD68’s public consultation process “is less than ideal.”
At issue for Fediuk is how much time parents spend submitting their thoughts through SD68’s web-based ThoughtStream process when “we’re not clear who’s compiling it or analyzing it and if our thoughts will really appear.”
Fediuk works as a researcher, conducting studies on traditional food systems and food security among Canada’s Aboriginal people.
As far as she’s concerned, “[SD68] staff are not researchers and there’s a lot of opportunity for bias. They’re trying, but I would have had a lot more confidence in the current consultation if it had been done by researchers at VIU or UVic.”
Fediuk doubted the effectiveness of analyzing the volume of information SD68 is likely to receive through ThoughtStream in the span of four weeks.
Stage one of ThoughtStream closed May 12, Fediuk said, and SD68 was scheduled to publish its findings. The original plan was for the public to provide SD68 feedback on those findings from May 30 through June 7.
By 5 p.m. Friday, SD68 had yet to re-open ThoughtStream, leaving Fediuk to suspect that “something had gone sideways.”
Jeremy Kerr and Julie-Anne Richards said that as of noon on Saturday, June 1, SD68 had yet to post ThoughtStream data for feedback.
Richards and Kerr’s daughter attends EDR and their son is scheduled to begin kindergarten in September. They say they are not PAC members, but they are actively involved in the consultation process.
To promote the consultation process, they have created the website success4all.ca.
The site offers parents a space for “collaborative brainstorming” as they attempt to draft alternatives to those listed in SD68’s EFL Plan.
Richards and Kerr will compile thoughts, ideas and suggestions submitted to their site, then submit it “in batches” to Kelt prior to the final vote, they said.
The consultation process continues with SD68-sanctioned meetings scheduled at Cedar Secondary Wednesday, June 12, and at Ladysmith Secondary Monday, June 17. Both meetings run from 6-9 p.m.
PAC members, parents and the public can submit their thoughts on the EFL Plan to SD68 by e-mailing Cathy Kelt at firstname.lastname@example.org, by faxing them to 250-741-5309 or by mailing them to School District 68 (Nanaimo-Ladysmith), 395 Wakesiah Avenue, Nanaimo, B.C., V9R 3K6.