Central Okanagan School Board Chair Moyra Baxter no longer has kids in school having watched as her children moved through the system and onto careers in the work force. A retired nurse and longtime school board trustee, her kids’ graduation might have seemed like a perfect way to step away from education herself, but Baxter didn’t think about that when her last son graduated, nor when the time came to decide whether to run again this year after 18 years on the school board.
And when no one else filed nomination papers for the trustee position for Peachland, Baxter was acclaimed for her position and will be sworn in with a new board, following the Nov. 15 civic election. Lake Country representative Deb Butler was also acclaimed, meaning Lake Country residents will not have to vote for school trustee.
“I think a lot of people say ‘my children have left school and I don’t have an interest,’ which I just don’t agree with,” said Baxter. “Public education is everyone’s business. We need to be involved and know what’s going on in our schools.”
Baxter has been the chair of the education board for the past two years and for eight of her 18 years on the board, a show of faith in her by the rest of the trustees, who vote each year on who should hold the position.
During her time on the board the Central Okanagan School District has grown to host close to 22,000 kids and in the past decade the graduation rate in the district rose from below the provincial average of 76 per cent about 10 years ago, to 86 per cent this past year, well above the provincial average.
According to Larry Paul, the School District secretary treasurer, the board of trustees deserves a lot of credit for the rise in the graduation rate.
“That kind of growth doesn’t happen without the effort and support from the board of trustees,” said Paul. “They’ve put in programs to improve our achievement, retain kids and all the different things that have happened. That’s come with the support of the people on the board.”
Getting onto the school board didn’t come easy for Baxter. After years of work on Parent Advisory Councils (PACs), she decided to run for school board in 1990. The vote was so close it took two recounts until she ended up on the losing side by just a single vote. She then re-dedicated herself to PACs. She was president of the Central Okanagan PAC as well as the B.C.-wide parent group before again running for school board in 1996 when she was elected as the Peachland representative.
Six three-year terms later, Baxter says a large portion of the public doesn’t fully understand the board’s function.
“I think there is a lack of understanding about the role of the school board,” she said. “We are politicians just like the mayor and council. We’re elected at the same time in the civic election and yet I’m not sure people really take a great interest in the school trustee elections, which is really unfortunate. It’s a huge enterprise and a lot of people don’t understand that and don’t understand the importance of electing people who can govern at the school district level and advocate for more funding when we think we need it.”
With 22,000 students across the Central Okanagan School District’s 43 schools, the district is the fifth largest in B.C. and showing no signs of getting any smaller. In fact several parts of the district are seeing enrollment increase at the youngest ages as more and more Kindergarten classes fill up with young families living in areas like the Mission and Lake Country, two areas that are over-capacity at the youngest ages.
The district has about 60 portables in use at various locations to deal with the demand at schools that have over-crowding issues and with no new schools approved for construction in the district, those portables will remain in use and be moved around to where they are needed until the provincial government agrees to fund new schools.
“Using portables is how we end up buying our time,” said Paul, who works out of the the school district office. “We have a number of portables closed right now because we opened up new space (Chute Lake Elementary, Mar Jok Elementary) but eventually, as demand catches up, we will be moving those portables to meet that demand. It’s a reality that we have portables to fill the gap.”
Despite building plenty of local schools in the past decade, construction hasn’t kept up with the number of kids entering the school system.
When Chute Lake Elementary opened in 2010, it was at capacity right away. In West Kelowna, the opening of Mar Jok this year has taken the pressure off the area’s other elementary schools, while in Lake Country Grade 7 students have been moved into a new annex near George Elliot High School. But one of three elementary schools there remains over-capacity and another is close to capacity, even after the move.
Currently the district’s top priority (see box for capital plan) is a replacement for Rutland Middle School
“The Ministry of Education runs density factors to take a look at the number of kids per square foot and we’ve always been very high on that list,” said Paul. “We’re often the second highest in density factor and that’s why we’ve done very well over the years.”
In fact, over the past 10 years, there have been 14 major capital projects in the Central Okanagan School District, including four new schools and additions to 10 others. And with more young families coming to the area all the time, the school district is constantly in long-term planning, watching development in the four different municipalities within the district.
In order to be ready to build new schools, the district also owns 10 parcels of land it has acquired over the years, either where schools have closed or land that has been bought in areas where it appears a school will eventually be needed.
A recently completed long-term facility plan has been approved by the board of education. In it, the district lays out its existing assets and whether or not they will be needed in the future, a road map of future school development.
“The government is always reticent to give us money for land so we are always trying to find ways to deal with that part of it,” said Paul. “You might look at a land swap or land sales to get money to buy other land. Years ago we needed to replace Rutland Elementary so we got some other pieces of property and basically traded with a developer.”
While the district continues to maneuver and position itself for possible future schools by buying and selling land, in the end it’s still up to the provincial government to decide when any schools will be built.
“That’s always the final challenge is getting the government to approve the funding for a new school,” said Paul. “Right now our top five requests are three new schools and two replacement schools. If we could wave a magic wand and make those appear tomorrow they would all be full.”
On voting day in the municipal election, residents of the Central Okanagan will find names on the ballot for school trustee.
Paul says the school board election is often over-shadowed by city or district council votes but he says people should be paying closer attention.
“It’s very important for people to look at who’s running for trustee,” he said. “We’re shaping the young minds that are going to be our next work force. Those are the people that are going to take care of us in the future. The education system is very complicated and very challenging so you need to have someone that is a deep thinker, someone that shows they know the system and has a deep value on education.”
Baxter has seen many trustees come and go during her time and says the best ones are passionate about the school system and want to work within it, not use the school board as a stepping stone.
“I believe if a person wants to run for public office they should say ‘where does my passion lie? Where do I want to put my time and effort?'” she said. “I hope everyone who is running feels like the school system is where they should put their time and effort. That’s the main thing I ask of them: Are they really committed to this?”