The Langley school district’s money problems cast a long shadow over the first all-candidates meeting Tuesday night, before an audience of about 120 people at Brookswood Secondary School.
The issue dominated the two-hour meeting, with the incumbent trustees and the people who want to replace them both saying they were shocked to learn the district was millions of dollars in debt.
Where they disagreed was over the best way to handle the fiscal crisis, with the incumbent trustees insisting they’ve done everything that could be done by agreeing to provincial government demands for quick repayment, while their would-be replacements said the board should have fought harder to preserve important programs.
The event was organized by the unions that represent local teachers and school support staff, who arranged to have the trustees file on stage to the music of “Pomp and Circumstance” playing on the speakers.
The theme of the evening was established early on, when a tape recorded message was played from absent candidate Candy Ashdown, whose father is in hospital.
Ashdown berated the provincial government for “underfunding” Langley schools.
“It’s time to build our district back to what it was, a leader in the province,” Ashdown said.
While Ashdown and the other candidates seeking a first term tended to talk about doing more to protect quality of education, incumbents seeking re-election tended to talk about the financial hit the district has taken and how its options are limited.
“Our schools have been hit harder than most,” said incumbent Wendy Johnson.
“It isn’t looking very good for the next three years, to be honest,” Johnson added.
Pamela Rose Combs suggested the board should press for more money from Victoria.
“The government needs to realize that we’re underfunded,” Combs said.
But she agreed many of the cuts could not be avoided.
“Everything comes to down to funding … you have to be prepared to make those tough decisions,” Combs said.
Douglas Smuland, who works as a teacher in a different school district, said he isn’t confident that the provincial government which created the financial woes of the Langley district is the best agency to solve them.
Incumbent Rod Ross said the board had few options because the province controls the money.
“We have numbers we have to live with,” Ross said.
“We have done the best to manage our situation,” Ross added.
Incumbent Cecelia Reekie said she hopes some of the spending cuts can be restored, such as the elimination of an aboriginal Kindergarten program.
Candidate Kari Medos said the district should campaign harder to reverse cuts to important resources like school counsellors.
“The voice that goes to Victoria has to be very loud,” Medos said.
Megan Dykeman said cutting counselling is short-sighted.
“I think it will cost our district more money [in the long run]” Dykeman said.
Incumbent trustee Alison McVeigh said the cuts could not be avoided.
“It has pained me greatly that we have had to make the cuts we had to make,” McVeigh said.
She promised she would work to “get it back” if re-elected.
John McKendry, who currently runs Kwantlen Polytechnic University, hinted the incumbents should have seen the debt crisis coming, saying he’s “had to close programs and campuses,” but always with plenty of advance warning.
Kirsten Schaffer-Charlesworth said creative solutions can be found to mitigate cuts.
“Think outside the box.” Schaffer-Charlesworth said.
When the issue of resources for special needs students came up, trustee Stacy Cody said the district simply isn’t getting enough funding.
“The money that has come across our table from government has never been enough,” Cody said.
Incumbent Rob McFarlane said trustees had to make hard decisions.
“This is where the rubber hits the road and the students are paying the price,” McFarlane said.
“We can’t use underfunding by the province as an excuse,” he added.
Candidate Brian Leonard called for a “needs assessment” to convince the province to improve funding.
A second meeting for the trustee candidates will be held tonight (Thursday) at Christian Life Assembly (21277 56 Ave.) from 7 to 10 p.m.