Independent SCC candidate Sukhy Dhillon (right) answers a question at an all-candidates meeting for Surrey school trustee hopefuls on Wednesday night as incumbent Ijaz Chatha and Moh Chelali look on.

Surrey school candidates face the public

Pre-election public meeting draws about 50 people.

The topics ranged from funding, overcrowding and advocacy, to technology, standardized testing and bullying as candidates for Surrey school trustee faced the public for a pre-election all-candidates meeting Wednesday evening.

A crowd of about 50 showed up to hear what the would-be trustees had to say. Organized by the Surrey DPAC (District Parent Advisory Council), 11 of the 14 candidates attended, although independent Malkiat Singh Kang and Surrey First Education incumbents Pam Glass and Laurie Larsen were no shows.

A lack of capital funding and the perennially inequitable Community Link funding (for vulnerable or at-risk students) Surrey receives underlined much of the evening’s tame debate, with incumbent trustees fired upon for their apparent lack of success in securing provincial dollars. One spectator said the current board of education has been too quiet and applauded the Vancouver board for their “courageous” stand. Another, Steve Wood who’s running for council under the SCC (Surrey Civic Coalition) banner, asked why voters should give current trustees another three years when they “haven’t been able to deliver.”

Trustee Shawn Wilson, a member of Surrey First Education who’s been on the board for 12 years, said he and his colleagues have always approached the issue with the province in a “respectful and polite manner.”

Trustee Terry Allen agreed, and said it’s simply a matter of the provincial government not listening to the elected local board.

“The only people that can make the change is you,” he told the audience. “The truth is, you have the power.”

Other candidates argued a new and better tactic is clearly required.

“We need people to … actually speak up,” said SCC candidate Ram Sidhu, pointing out the 250-plus portables now filling Surrey school grounds isn’t acceptable.

“What do we need?  We need change,” said Moh Chelali, referring to the longtime members of the Surrey Board of Education.

“We need a much more collaborative approach,” said independent Paul Hillsdon, adding it’s not enough to go to the media every week saying “we need more money, we need more money.”

Trustees were asked what changes would be coming to address 21st Century learning needs.

SCC candidate Laurence Greeff said he didn’t want to see Surrey become an “experiment for American-style reform” and said he was concerned vulnerable children will lose out if technology is embraced too tightly. The most important thing in schools, he said, is how students are socializing.

“The idea of a child sitting in front of a computer all day is not good,” Greeff said.

Sidhu said it’s important to fear technology just as much as embrace it, saying children can learn more from a teacher than they’ll ever learn from a computer.

Incumbent Reni Masi said incorporating technology in the classroom is an “evolutionary process.” More than 5,000 Surrey kids were in summer school doing online learning this year, he said, adding it’s about much more than children sitting in front of computers and all about them working with other students and teachers.

Hillsdon said there are clearly many different definitions of 21st Century learning.

“Yes, it’s about technology, but it’s also about macro-economic changes going on” and stiff competition from overseas, he said.

There was also concern about creating equity among schools, so those in lower-income neighbourhoods aren’t stuck with aging and inadequate equipment, while higher-income areas easily fundraise for new resources.

Having “have and have-not schools” just isn’t acceptable, said SCC candidate Sukhy Dhillon.

“Public education is for everyone,” she said.

Hillsdon noted that with computer prices dropping rapidly, soon the cost will be so low that everyone can afford the required technology. Hillsdon also suggested that an annual “technology credit,” say of $500 or so, be granted to every student to spend on the equipment they need.

The topic of random versus standardized testing arose, prompting discussion about the controversial annual Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests.

“Standardized testing has taken a toll on teachers and students and parents,” said Dhillon, an elementary teacher in Delta. “Random testing is always welcome.”

Independent Anne Van Rhyn said she supported teachers having the autonomy to come up with valuable forms of assessment.

Asked by a parent what they’d do to ensure no more school days were lost in order to save money, Allen admitted there was no educational value to having a two-week spring break, but that without cutting the days, school programs would have suffered.

Referring to the longer spring break and the extended days implemented at overcrowded Earl Marriott Secondary and Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary, incumbent Ijaz Chatha said “all these are Band-Aid solutions. I am not in favour that this should be continued.”

A student from North Surrey Learning Centre, the son of candidate Ann Van Rhyn, wondered when the centre would re-locate from an industrial park in Newton, where it was moved this year.

Masi said the district simply can’t find a location in the area, but is still looking to move the centre back to the city’s north end.

Van Rhyn pointed out that many of the students are already disenfranchised, while some are in Foster care and others can’t afford bus fare to get to the school.

“I don’t think it’s right to put more barriers in their way,” she said.

One man told the candidates bullying not only continues in schools, but at some high schools where there is a large percentage of South Asians, the harassment is becoming more and more caste and religion-based.

Wilson said he was surprised the matter hadn’t been dealt with as the district doesn’t tolerate such behaviour. He promised to address it, telling the parent to speak to him directly and “I will fix it.”

“We’re looking at a systemic issue here,” countered Sidhu, suggesting anti-bullying programs be re-visited. “There’s 1,000’s of kids dealing with this.”

When asked by a member of the Fraser Heights Secondary PAC when the district would establish an IB (international baccalaureate) program in the north of the city – there’s currently just one, at Semiahmoo Secondary in South Surrey – the crowd was pleased to hear from Masi that it was already in the works and will be implemented by next September.

“There will be an IB program in the north end of Surrey … it’s high time,” Masi said.

Chelali reiterated that money – or the lack thereof – is the most pressing issue in Surrey.

“That’s really the key here. Trustees here are telling you ‘we are here, but we can’t help you,'” he said.

Chatha said having more consultation is his top issue, and Dobie agreed communication is key. She suggested trustees have a regular “meet and greet” with the public.

“We need to actually be talking with these people,” she said.

Hillsdon, who said he came close to dropping out of high school, pointed to a need to fundamentally change gears away from a one-size-fits all public education system to one that is more personalized.

“We need to shift to a much more engaging model.”