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MUNICIPAL ELECTION 2022: SD78 Agassiz-Harrison candidates showcase their platforms

All-candidates meeting was well-attended at AESS
SD78 school trustee candidates (left to right) Wendy Coleman-Lawley, Wendy Clark and Andrea Hensen await the next question during the all-candidates meeting at the AESS library on Tuesday, Oct. 4. (Adam Louis/Observer)

An interested group of residents gathered at Agassiz Elementary Secondary School to listen to candidates for school board in the coming election during the all-candidates meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 4.

The Fraser-Cascade Teachers’ Association and District Parent Advisory Committee hosted the all-candidates meeting; back-to-back events featured candidates from Hope and Fraser Canyon on Monday and the Agassiz-Harrison area candidates on Tuesday. Questions were submitted to the hosts ahead of time.

Incumbent Wendy Coleman-Lawley and her fellow candidates Wendy Clark and Andrea Hensen were in attendance. Incumbent Marilyn Warren was not present.

“How often do you plan to visit each school site during the school year?”

Clark said in addition to board meetings in various locations, it would be wise to visit the schools “at the very least once, a couple of times would be great.”

“The only way to connect with people would be to get out there and show your face and be available for them to talk to you,” Clark added.

Coleman-Lawley said in the past, she has attended schools during special and celebratory occasions to make her presence known and build relationships.

Hensen agreed with both Clark and Coleman-Lawley, saying attending the sites as much as possible would be best.

“The more I could do that, if I were a trustee, the more I would be able to listen to students, parents and constituents,” she added.

“To aid recruitment and retention, A. Are you in favour of reinstating a policy of exit interviews conducted by trustees and human resources and B. Would you include recent former employees as well?”

Coleman-Lawley said she would be in favour of working in exit interviews and would want to include recent former employees. “I think an exit interview is great, particularly if someone is moving from a teaching position in Fraser-Cascade to, for example, Chilliwack, to find out why and what’s going on so we can be competitive and address, if there are any concerns,” she said.

She said a teaching shortage presents a significant obstacle to the district and bigger strategies would be needed.

Hensen said exit interviews have proven helpful for recruitment and retention and would be in favour of including recent former employees. She added the more information the district could gather, the more the process could improve.

Clark agreed with her fellow candidates.

“Any extra information we can gather to find out why people are moving on to different areas I think would be helpful in recruiting new individuals,” she added.

“There is a provincial teacher shortage, and SD78 often has unfilled positions as well as relying significantly on retired teachers for teachers-on-call. If elected school trustee, what sorts of things would you do or propose to encourage new teachers to come work for SD78?”

Hensen said creativity would be key to figuring out the retention problem. She said immediate fact-finding to find the reasons teachers and staff would be hesitant to commit to SD78 is imperative.

Clark suggested creating a recruitment package showcasing SD78, the area in which teachers live and work as well as some of the advantages it offers as a small school district.

Coleman-Lawley offered a multi-faceted strategy. She said retired teachers are valuable and could be used in a mentorship program to aid new recruits. She hopes to hold recruitment events, recruit a solid base of full-time teachers-on-call and promoting travel accommodations such as carpooling.

“What will you do/have you done to establish and maintain a collaborative relationship with the Fraser-Cascade Teacher’s Association and Construction, Maintenance and Allied Workers?”

Clark said communication with the board and the organizations is key, including attending different events to engage with the groups.

Coleman-Lawley has been involved with the bargaining committee with the unions before, reaping what she says are positive results.

“I want to listen,” she added. “I want to be respectful and acknowledge where they’re coming from and then rather than get involved in it, give them a pathway so they can feel empowered and bring about the change or address the issue they have.”

Hensen agreed that maintaining availability and receiving feedback were crucial to good relationships.

“What is your motivation for running for school trustee?”

Coleman-Lawley prioritized the students; she wants to celebrate with and advocate for students as they deal with triumphs and trials in their time in Fraser-Cascade schools.

“It’s absolutely the kids and what they need,” she added.

Hensen said she wanted to get more active in the school district and is running for trustee in order to make positive changes.

Clark agreed with the other two candidates in that she gets satisfaction in her current and prospective future involvement in the district by advocating for students and making sure they are heard.

“I know changes won’t happen overnight, but every little step helps,” she said.

“How will you encourage Indigenous parents to become involved in their children’s education?”

Hensen said extending invitations to parents for celebrations, ceremonies and into classrooms to provide cultural insight would be a good start.

Clark said making personal connections with parents through school events and listening whenever she can would help. She further acknowledged that the district has a strong Indigenous Education Council “who works very hard at working with families and getting them involved.”

Coleman-Lawley said it is long overdue to start holding board meetings in Indigenous communities in order to more closely engage with parents and invite them to participate.

“I think celebrating Truth and Reconciliation and actually inviting parents to have a role in (their children’s education) makes them feel as though they have a place and they’re welcome, and they’re valued and they have purpose,” she added. “So I think some shoulder tapping, some hand holding and reaching out will be really valuable in continuing to enhance those relationships.”

“Some school districts in the Fraser Valley are questioning materials in school libraries. What role do you think the SD78 School Board should have in determining the books and resources in our school libraries?”

Clark said the trustees can offer guidance for inquiries but the decisions on educational and library materials are best in the hands of the educators.

Coleman-Lawley said the human rights of the students should come first. She said there should be transparency in allowing concerned parents to view the material and to educate them on the material if needed.

Hensen agreed with Clark’s hands-off approach, adding that hearing concerns and feedback from parents can only create a learning experience for everyone involved.

”What do you think is important to employees, students and parents in this district?”

Coleman-Lawley said the most important thing to all three groups is relationships.

“I think employees need to feel secure, need to feel heard, need to feel acknowledged and need to feel as though they have purpose,” she said. “I think parents need to be heard, they need to know that their kids are safe.”

She added that students need opportunities, diverse coursework, safety and “they need to not come to school in masks.”

Hensen said parents are looking for quality education for their children. She added more mental health measures for employees, particularly after the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, would also be a priority. For students, “safe and inclusive” environments are key.

Clark said employees are looking for job satisfaction and to feel validated and valued. She said parents want what’s best for their kids – a safe, fulfilling school experience. She said students want to feel safe both emotionally and physically and opportunities to expand on their areas of interest such as the arts or athletics.

Election Day is Oct. 15.

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