The 2020 COVID virus pandemic played a role in the Area C school trustee candidates forum | Image from the Comox Valley Schools Facebook page
School trustee candidates for Dec. 12 Area C by-election speak at digital forum
In the Comox Valley’s first digital-only local government election forum last night, six Electoral Area C candidates made their pitch for the Dec. 12 District 71 trustee by-election.
The six candidates — Randi Baldwin, Kandice Bielert, Monica Parkin, Terence Purden, Cristi May-Sacht and Rob Thompson — answered questions about accountability, the district’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program, how schools should handle the stress and mental concerns caused by the pandemic and how they would handle public criticisms of board decisions.
Jenn Fisher and Brooke Finlayson, members of the District Parent Advisory Council, organized the forum in response to requests from Area C parents. Fisher, the DPAC secretary, introduced the forum and Finlayson, DPAC vice-chair, asked questions submitted by parents.
In a statement to Decafnation after the forum, District 71 School Board Chair Sheila McDonnell thanked the DPAC organizers and all the candidates for showing such interest in education.
“We are pleased to have this interest in School District 71 and encourage eligible residents of Area C to get out to vote,” she said. “We look forward to having a successful candidate join us in working to support student success in the Valley.”
Finlayson told Decafnation that the forum’s questions were submitted by parents, community, and partner groups to help voters in their decision making.
“DPAC’s mandate is to provide opportunities for parent education, and although it is not only parents who vote, all community members have a vested interest in education,” she said. “We appreciate the candidate’s willingness to participate and to answer the questions asked of them. We have received positive feedback that last night’s forum was helpful.”
As it has for most of 2020, the COVID pandemic shaded most of the candidates’ opening statements and it returned repeatedly in their response throughout the evening.
And while candidates expressed differences in style, there were few clear disagreements over district policies.
The exception came when the candidates were asked for their opinions on the district’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program (SOGI), which is a provincially mandated part of the curriculum.
Purden said the SOGI policy was “written for lawyers.” And Thompson said he doesn’t support “100 percent of 100 percent of the policy,” but added that would also be true of any particular program.
Baldwin and Bielert noted that the SOGI program is part of the Ministry of Education’s curriculum, so they support it. They also would monitor feedback from students and teachers, to see how it’s working, whether it’s effective and if everyone is comfortable.
Parkin said there’s “always room for change” and that “how we treat one person should be how we treat everyone.” She said the program is mandated so the district is obligated to support it. “We should leave our biases aside,” she said.
May-Sacht said she’s “thankful the program is finally here” because people naturally “fear the unknown.” She supported “educating parents and students with dignity and respect.”
On the question of trustee accountability, most candidates emphasized the importance of listening carefully to constituents and teachers and share that feedback with the full board.
Parkin equated accountability with integrity and honesty. May-Sacht said accountability meant taking responsibility for your actions and doing what you say you will do.
Baldwin said trustees are accountable to everyone in the chain, from students to the Education Minister.
Bielert said it meant not just giving lip service to parents and PACs.
Thompson said it requires trustees to stay up-to-date all the time and to speak with great intent.
On the question of how to ensure Area C parents stay engaged with schools, all of the candidates’ responses revolved around communication.
Baldwin the keys to parental engagement was communication, listening and attending PAC meetings.
Bielert said the needs and concerns of parents on issues like SOGI and bullying should have a larger voice at the board to validate them.
Parkin said she would address issues unique to Area C, such as busing and the age of schools in the area. Parents need to be heard on those issues and trustees should be tuned into them. They should be as visible and available as possible.
May-Scaht said the trustees should participate in the schools’ PACs and engage parents differently, using Zoom and social media.
On the question of how they would handle conflicts with the public when they think a board decision is unfair, the candidates expressed different approaches but generally agreed that more careful listening was needed.
Thompson referred to his long history as an educator at the secondary and post-secondary levels and of his experience in handling corners. He said the objective is always to find a consensus where everyone can operate safely.
Parkin said she would endeavor to find the roots of a complaint. Before responding to a parent, she would go back and ask more questions to get to the deeper reasons for their concerns.
May-Sacht said the trustee is just one person that is part of a larger team. And they may not be able to change a board decision, but she would allow people to vent, and answer them honestly, getting more information when necessary.
Purden said he would listen carefully.
Baldwin would respectfully listen and take the feedback to the board, but said that a trustee can’t change a board decision.
Bielert would listen to hear if the person felt they were part of a process. She said board decisions stand, but sometimes decisions need to be reviewed.
On the question of how to ease the stress and possible mental health concerns during these disruptive times, the candidates had a variety of suggestions.
May-Sacht suggested opening lines of communication and focusing on what everyone can do, such as share love and encourage positivity at home. She urged people to be physically active.
Purden said the board should keep people up to date so there’s no confusion or fear.
Baldwin focused on communication and the importance of trustees leading by example. Fear is the problem, she said, because it makes it hard to function, but it can be alleviated with information.
Bielert said trustees can be supportive and positive and ensure safety measures in the schools.
Thompson returned to the listening theme. He said it demonstrates the intent to trust and encourages trust. He suggested the concept of appreciative enquiry, or looking for the right things and to always circle back with people.
Parkin said her first objective is to make sure everyone in the schools are physically and emotionally safe. And that they feel valued whoever they are at their core.
WHEN, WHERE TO VOTE
Advance voting begins tomorrow, Wednesday, Dec. 2, from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm at the Merville Hall, 1245 Fenwick Road, Merville. And it continues on Thursday, Dec.10, from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm at the School District Office, 607 Cumberland Road, Courtenay.
General Voting takes place on Saturday, Dec.12, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at NAVIGATE school, formerly called NIDES and prior to that, referred to as Tsolum School, 2505 Smith Road, Courtenay.
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