Anyone attending Monday night’s school board all-candidates forum, sponsored by the Merritt Chamber of Commerce at the Civic Centre, and hoping for some fireworks to fly was sadly disappointed.

There was not the least bit of acrimony amongst the participants, no axes to grind by either candidates or members of the audience, and no single issue or question that seemed to get the blood boiling.

Instead, the 40 or so members of the public on hand were treated to a very civil display of local politics in action, as impassioned citizens of our community put their best foot forward — seeking to make a difference in the lives of children and families in Merritt and the surrounding areas.

Five candidates for the local school board were able to make the forum on Monday night: incumbent Tim Kroeker, along with newcomers Brian Jepsen, Everett Hoisington, Ko’aiantco Michel and Gerry Ellingsen.

Unable to make this week’s forum were three additional candidates. Gordon Swan was called away to Calgary by a sudden death in the family, while Joyce Perrie and David Laird are travelling out of the province and the country respectively.

Incumbents Swan and Kroeker, along with Perrie, Jepsen and Hoisington, are vying for three city positions on SD 58’s board of trustees while Laird, Michel and Ellingsen are contesting the one rural position available.

After some opening remarks by forum moderator Jamie Ballam from Q101 radio, each of the five attending candidates at Monday’s forum was given five minutes to introduce themselves and present their platforms.

Brian Jepsen spoke first. The father of three grown children — all of whom went through the local school system — has three grandchildren about to arrive in Merritt and enroll in local schools. He is a former SD 58 school board trustee, having served two terms from 1999 to 2005.

“I really enjoyed it. That’s why I’m back here,” Jepsen said.

A Ministry of Transportation manager, Jepsen has worked with local youth in one capacity or another for 25 years, through church activities, sports groups and various school events from hot dog sales to Dry Grad.

Second to speak was Everett Hoisington. The Highland Valley employee has three young sons attending schools in Merritt — ranging from the Jumpstart program to MSS.

“The education system is vitally important to me at both the community and personal level,” said Hoisington in his lengthy, well-prepared opening remarks.

“As your trustee, I will be accountable to the students, the families and the taxpayers of this district.”

This past spring, Hoisington was a member of SD 58’s Strategic Planning committee that was charged with developing a new vision for the school district.

“Extensive consultation with school stakeholders helped to develop this plan,” he said. “As a trustee, I’ll be committed to this plan and what our community has said is important to them — the best learning opportunities for our kids and educators, the physical, social and emotional well-being for all, strong and meaningful connections between the school district and the community, and the enhancement of organizational excellence within the school district in order to ensure the best educational experience for our kids.”

Hoisington went on to add, “The work done on behalf of this committee allowed me to develop a clear understanding of what our successes have been, and what challenges remain.”

For the past two years, Hoisington has also been a member of the Tech Resources’ Impact Council for Merritt. The council identifies and distributes funds to worthy groups within the community who are helping citizens of all ages.

“Being a part of this committee has allowed me to learn about the needs and gaps in our community,” he said, “and the many excellent organizations that our school district does and can partner with.”

Hoisington stated that he is a strong advocate of personalized learning for every student.

“Connecting education and [students’] interests and passions will help them to reach their full potential.”

Hoisington referenced the area’s five local aboriginal bands and significant East Indian community as being important partners in the education consultation process.

“Trustee support of all cultural and language education programs cannot be underestimated,” he said.

“Trustees must also lead the way in supporting our special needs students. They must be valued and given the same opportunities as any other student.”

Incumbent Tim Kroeker has served one previous term as trustee. Like Hoisington, he also grew up in the Nicola Valley and attended both elementary and secondary school here. He is the father of three children who go to public school locally.

“I know the importance of having the right people in the right place at the right time to provide the best leadership for our children’s education,” Kroeker said in his opening remarks. “For me, it started out with me being interested in my own children’s education. I got involved with the school PAC, and then  became a part of the school planning council. That’s what got me interested in becoming a school trustee and caring about our children — all the children of School District 58.

“I care about their education, and about producing children who become well-rounded and productive adults. I care about their [learning] environment — whether it’s the bricks-and-mortar school, the teachers that are teaching them, the education assistants that help or classroom composition. I also care about the parents. They know their children best, and their ideas matter.

“I’ve enjoyed being a school trustee in the district the past three years. It’s been a steep learning curve, but each challenge has only ignited my passion to be a voice for kids and their parents.”

The first of the rural candidates, Gerry Ellingsen, spoke next. Raised in the Nicola Valley, Ellingsen has two children in the school system and is married to an elementary teacher.

“I’m pretty exposed to the internal workings of the education system from the perspective of a father and a husband.”

Following graduation from Merritt Secondary School, Ellingsen attended UCC (now TRU) where he obtained a business administration degree. He later attained a masters of arts degree in leadership and training.

It’s those education experiences, as well as his time as a business manager in both Kamloops and Merritt, that Ellingsen believes will help him be an effective trustee.

“I’m used to working with and for people,” he said.

Ellingsen shared two stories with the audience of events in his life that helped to define his interests and identify his strengths. One had to do with his post-secondary studies on Egerton Ryerson.

“He is often considered to be the founder of public education in Canada,” Ellingsen said. “He pushed very hard for everyone — no matter what socio-economic situation they were in — to have equal access to public education.

“By doing research on him, it kind of engrained in me a love for public education, how important and how critical it is to maintain it, and keep it as high-quality as possible.”

Ellingsen’s second anecdote had to do with the substantial amount of group work involved in his master’s degree studies, and the challenges involved in keeping group members focused and on task.

“It’s that kind of leadership and keeping an eye on the big picture that I pride myself on and want to bring to the [school] board.”
The final candidate to speak was Ko’aintco Michel, a member of the Nooaitch First Nations community located approximately 20 kilometres west of Merritt.

Michel detailed the numerous leadership roles that she has filled over the years — as a First Nations community chief, as chair for the elected Nicola Tribal Council, as a member of the Scw’exmx Health Board and the local First Nations Health Council, as a cultural co-ordinator with the Kengard Learning Centre and SCIDES, and with NVIT’s first education board.

“I’ve learned to work with the other community members of the Nicola Valley. I was one of the first to help implement the local [aboriginal] educational agreement, which has to do with the band funds that go to the school district.

“Before, we never had a say in how that funding was used. I’m proud to say that I was one of the first to take the lead and negotiate the agreement.

“I’m a mother with two sons, two step-daughters, an adopted son and an adopted daughter. I’m a proud grandma with two little grandsons. When I look at them, I just say, ‘Yes, I’ve got to move ahead, and make a difference for our future generations.’”

Following the candidates’ opening speeches, the forum was opened up to questions from the audience.

The first two questions had to do with major documents recently produced by the local school board — the five-year Strategic Plan and the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement.

While Jepsen conceded that he had yet to examine either of the documents, the other four candidates all had at least a working knowledge of the contents.

Kroeker, as a member of the current school board, had been intimately involved in the drawing up of both accords, while Hoisington had been a member of the strategic planning committee.

“There were four main points [to the strategic plan],” said Hoisington, “learning, well-being, communication and organizational excellence. I would support it through and through.”

Hoisington went on to inform those in attendance that well-being is a huge concern amongst the many students who completed the survey that went out to the community as part of the strategic-planning process.

“Many students just don’t feel safe,” he said. “They’re not getting their basic needs met in everyday life. It’s a big part of why I’m standing up here right now.”

“Being an integral part of making up that strategic plan, it is important that we now start prioritizing — making it more of a tangible plan and putting the building blocks together,” Kroeker said.

Both Ellingsen and Michel agreed that the district’s five-year strategic plan was an impressive, valuable document, and that prioritizing was essential based on available funds.

“It would be beyond the resources [of the school district] to unfold that plan in its entirety,” Ellingsen said. “It’s too big.”

“Anytime resources go into funding a strategic plan, and people have been involved, it’s crazy not to follow it,” Michel said. “It’s really important, however, to be realistic, and to revisit it each year.”

As for the aboriginal enhancement agreement, all four candidates who had examined the pact felt that it was a vital document that needed to be acted upon.

“It’s a document that went to all the communities for input as to where the gaps were in First Nations education. Because a lot of people got involved, and a lot of thought went into it, I think it is very important that the education enhancement agreement be carried out,” Michel said.
“It was a long process getting that document put together,” Kroeker said. “We were one of only a few districts that completed one. It has a lot of value.”

Kroeker emphasized that the AEEA is a living document that will constantly be re-examined in the weeks, months and years ahead, and changed to reflect the existing situation and changing needs.

Hoisington said that the dropout rate of First Nations students in the district is definitely a concern, and that time and effort must go into giving these students a feeling of self-worth, and options.

“We have to support this document and see it through,” he said.

“It has to be narrowed down,” Ellingsen said of the education enhancement agreement. “I would like to see the two substantial documents meshed together as best as possible. The situation with trades training would be a good example.”

On the subject of co-operation between School District 58 and the City of Merritt when it came to services and facilities, candidates were unanimous in their belief that any and all opportunities to avoid duplication, and encourage partnerships and save money should be sought out and acted upon.

The final question from the floor had to do with the hot topic of bullying. Hoisington was the first to respond, indicating that the nature of bullying has changed in this day and age.

“Cyber-bullying is a large part of the current problem. It’s not something that we had when I was growing up. Education is the key — not just for the students, but the parents as well so that there’s support at home. It’s got to be addressed. We have to have something along the lines of digital citizenship.”

Jepsen agreed with Hoisington, stating,“For sure, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. It’s all about relationship-building. I would want to hear from educators, both locally and at the provincial level, as to what is being done already and take it from there.”

Michel referenced her experience working at Kumsheen school in Lytton, and the problems there with bullying.

“They called in all their community leaders and elders and people in key decision-making roles, and those people said they will not accept this [kind of behavior], and here are the rules of the community that you are going to live by, and we will be the watch dogs. That idea would be one way I would recommend to go, because we are all responsible.”

“The solution to cutting back on bullying is an issue that our whole country, our whole world is dealing with,” Ellingsen said. “I’d have to look at what we’re currently doing, because I don’t really know, evaluate it, see what options there are, and go from there.”

“I know that bullying’s out there, but I also know that it is a buzz word. Sometimes it’s just kids being mean,” Kroeker said. “The first thing is figuring out where the line is to be drawn.”