The North Delta Secondary theatre was home to an all-candidates meeting Thursday night, featuring 14 of the 17 trustee candidates running in the Delta election. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Advocacy, funding key concerns for Delta’s trustee candidates

The all-candidates meeting saw 14 potential trustees answer questions on equity, support and money

No matter who makes up the next Delta school board, advocacy and equity will likely play an important role — at least, according to comments during Delta’s first all-candidates meeting for trustee hopefuls.

The meeting, taking place in the largely empty North Delta Secondary theatre on Thursday, Oct. 4, saw 14 of the 17 candidates come out to discuss questions from the public and the district’s two major unions: CUPE Local 1091 and the Delta Teachers’ Association. (Missing from the meeting was Achieving for Delta candidate Jesse Dosanjh, independent candidate David Luey and incumbent Dale Saip.)

The debate-portion of the meeting began with a question put forward by the Delta Teachers’ Association. This question, prefaced with the information that Delta teachers are still struggling to get resources after years of under-funding, asked what the candidates would do to advocate for more funding.

“As a trustee, you will be advocating for funding with every last breath you take,” current trustee and candidate Val Windsor said. This statement was echoed by nearly all of the candidates on stage.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” current trustee Bruce Reid said. But, “we need to never let it go.”

For current school board trustees, that advocacy was largely focused on the new funding formula being discussed by the provincial government.

RELATED: Horgan promises new school funding formula in B.C.

This new way of allocating funding, still in the works at the Mionistry of Education, could potentially change how resources are distributed to urban and rural schools. Some trustees worry this could mean the Delta School District will receive less money in the future.

Current trustees Nick Kanakos, Laura Dixon, Rhiannon Bennett and Windsor all brought up the motions the current board has put forward about the model: to make sure a draft model comes back to stakeholders for review and to make sure no district loses money as a result of the changes. They also talked about a dinner the board had held for other education stakeholders to get input on the funding formula — something Bennett took credit for.

New candidates had some different ideas on how to advocate for more funding. Achieving for Delta candidate Sujay Nazareth said Delta needs to bring a business case to the province,to show the district is operating as lean as possible, but still needs more funding. Kids Matter candidate Victor Espinoza indirectly disagreed, saying schools can’t be run on a business model and need the resources to build students over many years.

Independents Working for You candidate Joe Muego suggested that school boards should advocate for more funding province-wide, and not just district by district, and Delta Voices candidate Andrea Hilder said she would bring first-hand stories to the provincial government to show them what funding cuts really meant on the ground.

Achieving for Delta candidates Daniel Boisvert and Erica Beard said the board needed to work with creative funding options: Boisvert said the board should work with the city, while Beard suggested advocating for more unconventional affordable housing supports for teachers and student loan forgiveness.

Candidates were also asked a question from CUPE Local 1091 — the union that covers support staff in the district, including custodians, administrative staff, maintenance staff, specialized teachers and education assistants. In this question, CUPE staff said they felt “invisible and ignored” in the district, and asked candidates what they would do the gain the trust of support staff.

Funding, again, came up as a key topic here, with most candidates saying there needed to be more money to hire more staff at better wages. Dixon suggested the teachers’ contract and the CUPE staff contracts need to “talk to each other” so both unions can be on the same page in the district, and Windsor said there needs to be a return of flexibility in funding so more money can go to support staff.

RELATED: Delta’s school budget needs to take past cuts into account, union says

However, “we can’t ignore what they are saying,” Delta Voices candidate Mita Naidu said.

Communication between the school board and CUPE workers was recognized as integral to making staff feel supported and respected in the district. Staff were called the “valuable backbone” of the district by candidate Melody Pan, and many said they would work to bring support staff voices to the boardroom. Randy Anderson-Fennell, a Surrey support staffer himself, said the board should make sure every decision helps them do their jobs better.

During the open question part of the evening, members of the audience were able to query the candidates on several issues. The first, focusing on equity, asked Bennett, Reid and Beard to identify their privilege, and how they would use that to advocate for marginalized students in the classroom. The speaker said that, as background, many people felt more district resources were going to academies in South Delta.

Reid, speaking first, said he was privileged to be retired and have a good understanding of the Delta School District through his own experiences and those of his family, who are going through the school system. He also said the district had to be on top of changing situations for marginalized students throughout the year, and listening to teachers as they bring those issues forward.

Beard, speaking to the background provided with the question, said she understood concerns about resources going to the south and said the board needed to look at micro-environments within the district so that each school can be given the resources it needs.

Bennett likely answered the question closest to what the speaker was hoping for, saying that she was privileged as a cis-gender heterosexual woman who was raised by both parents and her grandparents. As an Indigenous woman, she said, she was aware of the challenges marginalized students face and would bring that experience to expand Delta’s conversation about equity in schools.

RELATED: Finding Success: It’s not Delta’s students, it’s the system

Bennett’s answer about equity echoed some of the comments from the introductions. There, candidates brought up the concept of equity (the idea that students are given what they need to succeed, rather than everyone being treated the same) as something that was important to enhance throughout the district. Bennett, Naidu and Windsor commented on it specifically.

Another question from the floor asked the candidates to specifically identify what was underfunded in the classroom, and what exactly teachers were doing more of because of a lack of funding. Dixon noted a lack of system-wide programs, such as professional development days, mentorship programs and collaboration time. Reid brought forward the need to have students assessed from their early elementary school days.

Bennett and Muego both brought up the under-funding that results in teachers subsidizing supplies for their classroom, often “opening their own wallets to bring resources to the classroom,” Muego said.

Nazareth went one step further, bringing up a conversation he had with a teacher who said she didn’t have enough time to spend on all her students. “Education is missing from the classroom,” he said.

The night ended on a small discussion of the SOGI 123 teacher resource, which has been a topic of debate in many communities around the Lower Mainland.

RELATED: SOGI rally disrupts school board meeting, but business carries on

As NDSS teacher and meeting emcee Jeanie McKay noted during the evening, all of Delta’s trustee candidates who were at the meeting said they were in support of the teacher resource.

“It is our belief that trustees do not have the ability to change the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” McKay said on behalf of the candidates, noting that Delta has a strong SOGI policy that was built “from the bottom up and the top down.”

Initially McKay had decided that since not all candidates could answer the SOGI question (answers were limited to three candidates) it would have to be skipped. But, after a quiet conversation with Bennett, McKay said the latter half of the question — asking what they would do to advocate for LGBTQ students and staff — was important to have answered.

Bennett brought up this quiet discussion in her answer, saying that this was an example of the advocacy she does for LGBTQ students and staff. She also mentioned that she wanted to bring in statistics to Delta’s Organizing Against Hate and Racism committee on LGBTQ individuals. Kanakos added to this, saying that hate exists in school halls on the basis of everything from race to sexual orientation, and that Delta’s policy against discrimination needed continued support.

Nazareth finished the evening by saying the schools should be a place where everyone knows they are safe, and that was something he would make sure is upheld.

To read more about the candidates for Delta mayor, council and school board, check out “43 candidates running in Delta civic election.”

For a play-by-play of the all-candidates meeting, scroll through the live tweets below.

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