French Immersion dominates SD 19 public forum

Public forum moderator Geoff Battersby (center) reads his script as he waits with School Board candidates (from left to right) Doug Hamilton, Jeff Nicholson, Jewelles Smith, Bryan Dubasov, Elmer Rorstad, Annie Wilson and Alan Chell for the beginning of the 2011 Public Forum at the Seniors Centre on Wednesday evening. The eighth candidate, incumbent Trustee Mauro Morrone was in Denver on unavoidable business. However, he used video to make an opening and closing statement. David F. Rooney photo

By David F. Rooney

Questions about the possible introduction of French Immersion dominated Wednesday evening’s sparsely attended public forum for School Board candidates.

Seven of the eight candidates — incumbents Alan Chell, Doug Hamilton, Annie Wilson and Jeff Nicholson and challengers Jewelles Smith, Elmer Rorstad and Bryan Dubasov were present for the forum. Incumbent Mauro Morrone had a prior business engagement in Denver that he could not avoid. However, he used video to make both an opening and closing statement to a small crowd of men and women. Only 21 people, excluding two members of the news media and moderator Geoff Battersby, attended the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum at the Seniors’ Centre. And there were questions from just five people.

French education — particularly immersion — has for a number of years been an on-again/off-again issue for many parents. In 2008 School District 19 published a report on French Immersion but concluded that there were not enough children to sustain a French Immersion program in Revelstoke. That has not deterred parents from raising the topic on an almost annual basis. (It is worth noting that BC’s French School Board has concluded there are not enough Francophones here to warrant a separate all-French school.)

Prompted by questions from Stephanie Melnyk and Rory Luxmoore, candidates said they would be in favour of more intensive French education if a number of criteria were met.

Incumbent School Board Chairman Alan Chell, called French Immersion “a great program’ but noted that “the problem in the district is the lack of numbers.”

“I support French Immersion — if the numbers work out,” he said.

However, incumbent Jeff Nicholson didn’t think immersion was the way to go. He said early immersion in a second language can lead to contribute to learning difficulties in children. He thinks late immersion or a program called Intensive French, which is used in New Brunswick, might be a better alternative.

Candidates were also asked by Chris Swayze about the current negotiations between the teachers’ union and the government which is offering a “zero and zero” contract with no pay increases for two years  — an offer most teachers regard as insulting and inadequate.

However, Annie Wilson, herself a union member, suggested they may have no option. “I belong to the BCGEU and we settled for zero,” she said.

Elmer Rorstad, a former teacher and now owner of Free Spirit Sports, said “it has never been fair — I still think an increase is appropriate,” while former school principal Bryan Dubasov noted that “a union’s job is to get the best deal for its members.”

“We need to start working together,” he said.

Asked about “Number 1 improvements” needed in the school system, Doug Hamilton said School District 19 is doing quite well “and, to my mind, there are no heavy issues.”

Jewelles Smith, a former researcher and teaching assistant at Simon Fraser University, said her top priority would be to improve special education opportunities for students in Revelstoke.

“I’m passionate about education and would be available to meet with parents and students,” she said.

As the candidates made their final pitches for public support they all promised to be approachable and hard-working in pursuit of the a high standard of education for the students of Revelstoke.

Click here to read more about the eight men and women seeking seats on the board of trustees.