Incumbent Trustee Laurie Larsen speaks while other candidates running for a seat on the Surrey Board of Education listen during and all-candidates debate Wednesday night (Oct. 22).

Election 2014: Surrey school candidates debate education

Surrey School District 36: Trustee hopefuls talk funding, communication, crime and choice at all-candidates meeting

Improving communication with parents, securing capital funding and crime’s link to education dominated the debate during an all-candidates meeting for Surrey school trustee hopefuls Wednesday night.

About 100 residents showed up at the District Education Centre to hear from those running in the upcoming civic election for a spot at the Surrey Board of Education table.

Twenty of the 23 candidates attended the meeting. Bal Sabharwal, Gary Tymoschuk and Terry Allen were absent due to previous commitments.

The first question put to potential trustees was how they’d better communicate with parents.

Several candidates, including Sukhy Dhillon, Sara Sharma and Patricia Enair said the board needs to be more accessible and use tools like email, websites and social media to engage busy parents. Forrest Smith, who is deaf and spoke through an interpreter, referred to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s website as a good example of wide open governance.

Rayman Bhuller disagree, however, saying not all parents, especially those with limited incomes, have the technology to be online all the time.

“Real incidents and real problems – they don’t just exist in the web world,” he said, adding trustees need to be on the street, talking face to face with the public.

Other candidates said trustees simply need to listen.

“Parents want to know they’re going to be heard,” said David Matta, “and they want to know the people they elect are going to listen to them.”

Rina Diaz said there needs to be consultation with Parent Advisory Councils or School Planning Councils – something the current board neglects to do, she claimed.

When it came to ideas for securing sufficient capital money from Victoria to build Surrey schools, opinions varied.

Bob Holmes noted Surrey is forced to spend $4 million annually on portables due to a shortage of classroom space and gets no extra compensation from the province.

“The last I heard, the government told boards not to submit capital budgets because there’s just no money,” he said.

Nicole Joliet said government has stripped millions from school funding over the years and then “sneakily” makes trustees make the cuts and submit balanced budgets.

“You know what I’d do?” she said. “I’d submit a deficit budget.”

Balraj Atwal suggested the district get advice from a financial advisor

Incumbent Trustee Laurie Larsen said she repeatedly invited Education Minister Peter Fassbender and Premier Christy Clark – to no avail – to spend a day in a Surrey classroom to see firsthand that space is needed.

Trustees were then asked about the correlation between education and crime.

“It’s not about bringing more police to the streets,” said Harman Singh, “it’s about bringing more education to the system.”

“It’s a lot easier to education our kids now than try to fix them later,” said Jonathan Silveira.

Julie Tapley said it comes down to having the proper funding to offer kids programs that make them feel valued.

“When they don’t have that, the system fails,” she said.

Kirsty Peterson agreed, saying if schools don’t have programs and places where kids can fit in, they’ll turn to people and places outside school for a sense of belonging.

A question about the new BC Education Plan – a provincial move to alter various aspects of education system – elicited few responses from candidates.

“There’s great change coming to our children’s  education system,” said Enair, referring to proposals altering report cards and graduation requirements. “Our parents need to know what these changes are and they need to know how it’s going to affect their children.”

Niovi Patsicakis, a retired Learning Support Teacher, said she feared some changes might negatively impact students with special needs, and that the government’s drive for skills training could curtail academic focus.

When asked how to handle the increased demand for choice programs, incumbent Trustee Shawn Wilson said the board is proud of the programs (such as Montessori, French immersion and fine arts) that are offered. But he said their popularity can often cause the board a real conundrum.

“When you put a choice program in a school, that sometimes means there’s not enough space for neighbourhood children,” he said.

Garry Thind suggested decisions on where to place choice programs be based on the unique demographics, such a language, in specific neighbourhoods.

In closing comments, incumbent Trustee Charlene Dobie pointed out she was the only current trustee who voted against board members receiving a raise this year, and has donated her $600 per year increase back to community school programs. Sikandar Hayat said if elected, he’d donate at least 20 per cent of his honorarium.

The two-hour all-candidates meeting was hosted by the Surrey District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) and moderated by the group’s president, Linda Stromberg.

Surrey residents will have the opportunity to vote for six members of the Surrey Board of Education on Nov. 15. The seventh member is elected in White Rock, where incumbent Laurae McNally has been acclaimed.

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