“The gloves came off a little bit here tonight,” candidate Willow Bloomquist said half way through closing statements at the School District 69 all candidates meeting hosted by the District Parents Advisory Council.
Over 150 attended the evening in which a distinct divide between the three incumbents and five candidates running as a group was evident.
The five members of the Oceanside Communities for Quality Education members insist they are not a slate, while the three remaining candidates in the field of 11 try to stand out from the fray.
“There’s an incredible level of misinformation out there,” said incumbent Bill Preston.
“The board never planned to close any schools, it disappoints me that people haven’t done their homework,” he said referring to an earlier comment about a new bus garage in Errington and the Family Place project in Parksville, which he pointed out are from “totally different budget streams,” and don’t effect the school budgets as stated.
“Oh my, so many people going to board meetings and we’re still misinformed,” OCQE member Julie Austin responded sarcastically.
She summed up that her main qualification, like her fellow group members, is that they have students in school and are involved in their children’s lives.
OCQE member Martin Stewart said that since the current board has made their intention to close Kwalikum Secondary School (KSS) clear, a vote for the incumbents would be a strong mandate to close KSS.
He referred to the pending board vote on an updated Policy 3040 on school closure, consolidation or reconfiguration as proof they are in a rush to close the school.
The Policy 3040 revision was controversial when it was introduced in January, in light of the Matrix Report released three months earlier that recommended school closures as the best way to deal with declining enrolment and therefore funding.
The Ministry of Education required the policy to be updated and the board said the timing was coincidence and slowed the decision on the policy.
Among other changes to the pending policy, they added the requirement for a 90 day public consultation process after the policy was invoked and before a school could be closed.
The OCQE members spoke frequently and passionately about their goal to keep all schools in the district open while the incumbents repeated they never planned to close a school, that they had only received one report and had never accepted the recommendations.
Incumbent Bruce Cownden had said that despite being accused of secret agendas, the current board has done everything they were asked to since the fear of school closures came up, including starting an extensive “community dialogue” public consultation process.
Current board chair Eve Flynn, the last to close, stayed away from the dispute and said the trustee position is a multifaceted roll and a difficult balancing act to do the best they can with the five percent of their $43 million budget that they have any discretion over.