The BC School Trustees Association’s Elections Engagement Committee is composed of eight branch presidents; Tim Bennett, Lora-Lee Brekke, Shelley Carter, Laura Dixon, Art Erasmus, Eve Flynn, Ginny Manning and Lori Pratt, along with Director Donna Sargent and Vice President Gordon Swan. The committee exists representation from school districts throughout the province and is currently working on ways to make education the most talked about issue during the election. In order to realize this purpose, the committee will require the active participation of all school boards.
“Our goal is to make education, if not the key issue, one of the key issues in the upcoming provincial election,” said BCSTA vice-president and committee co-chair Gordon Swan. “We will be doing this in a non-partisan way and every branch president will be working with local Boards of Education to make this happen.”
For this election, the BCSTA is taking a grassroots approach by encouraging local school boards to participate by highlighting their specific needs and challenges in their communities. Such concerns include investments in trades and technology, recommendations from the Standing Committee on Finance as it relates to specific districts, rural issues of accessibility in the north and interior of the province, challenges faced by island and coastal communities due to unique geography and settings, a lack of classroom space in growing districts such as Surrey and much needed seismic upgrades for older schools in earthquake prone areas such as Richmond.
During the previous provincial election, the BCSTA itself was the main voice for public education advocacy, but strategies are changing for the upcoming election. “This time we are trying something a little bit different,” said BCSTA board director and committee co-chair Donna Sargent. “We want to empower our members and the community, to tell their story, to make it their own because we are locally elected and locally accountable to our voters. We want to give real examples at a local level on why public education is important.”
And to do that, the committee analyzed the upcoming AGM’s theme, “Education is the Key”, and asked the question, “Why is public education the key?” School boards will be encouraged to seek answers to this question, which will be widely publicized by trustees themselves, those running to be an MLA, chamber of commerce members, local government, students, seniors and various members of the public including businesses. This will also show and remind the 72 per cent of voters who do not have children of the importance of investing in public education.
“Public education is key to everyone,” Swan said. “It is key to a democratic society to have an educated workforce, it is key to social justice, key to a civil society, infrastructure, and community. It’s a key to having qualified nurses and doctors in a community, and this all starts in our local community schools.”
For many communities, schools also serve as a hub of activity. Seniors exercise by going for walks around the school, community groups such as Brownies and Scouts hold meetings after school hours, and gymnasiums are auditoriums are used for various community events.
“We want local school boards to show how impactful schools are to a community. Even if people don’t have kids, it’s a gathering spot,” Swan said. “Our school buildings are used five days a week by community groups. It’s not just a place kids go to until 3 p.m. It’s a bigger piece for the community.”
Currently, a new kit is being developed for this year’s public education advocacy campaign along with the last election’s “Me too!” articles being updated and repurposed. The “Me too” campaign encouraged people to take a picture of community members holding a circular sign that read, “We value public education,” in order to bring public education to the forefront of discussions in the last provincial election.
Social media will play a large role in the campaign, such as posting “public education is the key” answers on various platforms. At February’s provincial council meeting, the elections engagement committee will have a PechaKucha-style presentation Friday Night, with 20 slides shown for 20 seconds from 6 – 12 presenters. Those in attendance will then be able to engage each other in Saturday’s Issues Forum, to take what they learned to their local school boards to help them engage their local communities. The annual general meeting, set for April 2017, will have an all-candidates moderated education-forum, with representatives from the provincial Liberal, NDP, Conservative and Green parties having been invited to attend.
While the provincial election is still six months away, the committee is already feeling positive and energized from recent announcements from two of BC’s major political parties.
“We’ve seen in the past few month’s additional funds for a variety of District needs with both parties promising to invest more in Public Education,” Swan said. “We hope to see this expressed in their party’s’ education platforms.”
“It is one of the most important things they can invest in.,” Sargent said about the provincial government. “And the public needs to know that public education is being properly funded.”
Both Sargent and Swan acknowledge there is a fine line between advocating for public education and being seen as an advocate for one political party over the other. As a non-partisan organization, the BCSTA is primarily focused on improving the public education experience for all students.
“There will likely be trustees who may be running for provincial office and we know trustees come from a broad, political spectrum,” Swan said. “We don’t want to look supportive of one party or the other because trustees have to work with whichever party is elected for the next four-year mandate. It is a balancing act.”
By Christopher Sun, Writer, BCSTA