Trustee debate addresses key issues in education

A debate between the three candidates vying for the two Fort Frances seats on the Rainy River District School board only drew a crowd of about 15 people to the Townshend Theatre here Monday night.
But the candidates still made an effort to talk about the important issues facing the local public school board in the next three years.
Incumbents Gord McBride and Dan Belluz, along with challenger Linda Wall, also answered questions from those on hand.
“The thing that really disappointed me was the number of people who turned out,” McBride said after the debate. “The majority of the questions were from employees of the school board who were lobbying for more funds for their departments.”
McBride, the current chair of the board, added it’s not unusual for educators and administrators to lobby the board, especially around budget time.
“I wish there had been a bigger turnout,” agreed Wall. “It would have given me a better idea of what the issues are out there.”
She said those people who asked questions of the three candidates Monday night did bring up important issues, but added people in the community likely have more concerns that were not expressed.
“My suggestion would be to have [the debate] before the mail-in ballots are out,” said Belluz, who felt the late date of the event may have contributed to the poor turnout.
The debate was scheduled only a week before the election because of difficulties booking a facility. As well, Belluz and McBride have been acclaimed the past several elections and the filing of a third candidate was unexpected.
Rick Wiedenhoeft moderated the debate, which granted each candidate an opening statement, a rebuttal, a chance to answer questions from the audience, and a closing statement.
Belluz, the current vice-chair of the board, spoke first.
“This is what I base all my decisions on: what is best for the students,” he remarked.
Belluz, who had lost his prepared speech before the debate began, talked about the importance of programs like “Reading Recovery,” which help students reach their maximum potential.
“I believe in professional development for teachers … so they can pass on their expertise to students, who will prosper,” he added.
When asked why the district has only one full-time teacher librarian, Belluz said the decision was a difficult one.
“With the amount of money we had, it was a choice of eliminating classroom assistants, teacher assistants, or teacher librarians,” he replied. “Sometimes it takes a hard decision.
“The money is not there for teacher librarians right now, but I would be willing to lobby for that,” he noted, adding he also would like to see libraries made a line item in the budget process.
Wall introduced herself by talking about her background, her education, and what she sees as the important issues facing the school board down the road.
“I believe in education. I will listen. I will voice your concerns at the board,” she pledged.
“I see the programs and I associate with the children and parents at those facilities,” said Wall, who has a six-year-old son attending Robert Moore School here.
She cited her son as one of the reasons she decided to run for the school board.
“It’s time for me to step up to the plate and get involved in education,” she remarked. “I don’t enter this race lightly. I don’t expect to make changes overnight.”
When an audience member asked the candidates about the importance of libraries to the school system, Wall said libraries are very important, but added parents could play a bigger role by taking their children to the local public library.
“I don’t think we capitalize on the existing infrastructure,” she said. “Parents play an important role here. We have public libraries and we should be using them.”
In his opening address, McBride talked about the difficult decisions the board has dealt with. “One job trustees do not appreciate is having to close schools. We have to face gymnasiums full of angry parents,” he said.
“The reward is going to come in September, 2004 when we open this brand new facility,” he added, referring to the expansion of nearby J.W. Walker School currently underway.
“Over the next three years, this board will invest $90 million in funds,” McBride added, saying students, employees of the board, and the taxpayers of the province have an interest in seeing that money spent wisely.
One audience member asked about the possibility of co-ordinating services between the school board and town services like the library and recreation centre.
“Absolutely, we need more co-operation between groups in town,” McBride answered. “There is a great deal of duplication and non-communication between groups.”
Afterwards, all three candidates said they were satisfied with the event.
“I don’t think it was a debate that was won or lost,” Wall said. “It was an opportunity for people to ask some questions and get a sense of our perspectives.”