Candidates for the upcoming provincial election take part in an education-themed forum on Thursday evening at the Victoria Inn. (COLIN CORNEAU/THE BRANDON SUN)
Nine of the 11 candidates vying to be the MLAs in the provincial constituencies of Brandon West, Brandon East and Spruce Woods went back to school Thursday night.
In what is thought to be the only partnership of its kind across the province during this election campaign, the Brandon School Division and its teachers union co-hosted an education-themed forum last night at the Victoria Inn for candidates within the three constituencies from which school division taxes are collected.
In attendance were Brandon East candidates Drew Caldwell (NDP), Mike Waddell (PC) and Shaun Cameron (Liberal), Brandon West candidates Jim Murray (NDP), Reg Helwer (PC) and George Buri (Liberal) and Spruce Woods candidates Cory Szczepanski (NDP), Cliff Cullen (PC) and Trenton Zazalak (Liberal).
Brandon East Green Party candidate Vanda Fleury and Brandon West Communist Party candidate Lisa Gallagher were not officially invited to last night’s forum, as both women only entered the election race earlier this week.
While the forum garnered a crowd of about 100 people, the evening played out more like a series of high school book reports than an all-candidates forum, as the candidates’ prior knowledge of questions resulted in the majority of them simply reading directly from papers in front of them.
Most spent their time on the microphone reiterating their party’s stances on issues like standardized testing and report cards, class size and composition and all-day, every-day kindergarten.
Caldwell defended his government’s record of investment in the Brandon School Division.
"In the 1990s, school funding was cut or frozen for five consecutive years and during that decade, taxes on the average house valued at $175,000 went up over 60 per cent," he said. "Since 1999, education operating grant funding has increased by 47 per cent ... funding schools properly, as all of us know, takes the pressure off of school taxes for the local tax base."
Caldwell’s opponent Waddell, meanwhile, pledged to not continue using the NDP-imposed tax incentive grant as a "political tool" that forces divisions to freeze property taxes each year.
"We hate to see it as a political tool that’s there to control school boards, to make (a provincial government) look good instead of fulfilling provincial responsibilities," he said. "We would not be working to use that as a heavy-handed tool."
Helwer suggested that, after 12 years of NDP government, the problem of class size in the Brandon School Division has not been solved.
"About a dozen years ago when I was elected president of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce, the school board budget was just under $40 million and the critical issue then was class size," he said. "Now, we have almost an $80-million budget, I’m talking to people ... and the critical issue that I’ve heard from teachers universally is class size. Forty million dollars and 12 years later, we haven’t fixed that, and it’s been on the back of the Brandon taxpayer."
Buri, a former school trustee, spoke of the need to move to an education funding formula where the province picks up 80 per cent of the tab.
"What this means is that the provincial revenue contribution is 80 per cent of total operating costs, excluding government expenditures for teacher pension contributions, major capital construction costs and education property tax credit," he said. "The balance, 20 per cent, should be raised by school boards through education tax."
Though he’s still part of the current school board — which has criticized the downloading of healthcare costs for special needs students onto divisions — Murray suggested that meeting the needs of such kids "is paramount" to what it costs divisions.
"Whether it’s health-care dollars or education dollars, that money all comes out of the same pot," he said. "We fund education, we fund health care. The important thing is that the child gets the services they need in the school, that their health and education issues are addressed."
Cameron, meantime, chastised the NDP’s recent pledge to limit early years class sizes to 20 students or less.
"Classes are drastically different, depending on the makeup of them, and they often don’t reflect in the numbers," he said. "Our educators are highly trained professionals and should be treated as such and make the decisions they see fit."
Zazalak, too, said he would leave the issue of class size and composition to those on the frontlines and would also like to see English as an Additional Language students taught not only a new language but a new culture in their schools.
Cullen, formerly a PC MLA in the now-defunct constituency of Turtle Mountain, suggested extra financial assistance will be needed to address the growing needs of new immigrant students, but did not specify how much more a PC government would provide.
Szczepanski did little with his brief comments besides listing the NDP’s previous commitments to education, answering most questions with party talking points about class size, immigration policies and infrastructure funding.
The sparse number of audience questions posed to last night’s panel, combined with the lack of rebuttal opportunity for candidates, meant many comments that could have spawned true debate between candidates were simply accepted with polite applause from the audience prior to the moderator moving on to the next question.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 16, 2011