Child poverty was on the tip of everybody’s tongue at Tuesday night’s Kootenay Lake school board meeting. Representatives from a variety of interest groups urged the school board to do away with multi-tiered school fees that create a quasi-privatized school system, and the board voted to send a letter to Premier Christy Clark urging her government to create a poverty reduction strategy.
“This is bigger than just education,” said trustee Curtis Bendig, who introduced the motion. He noted that B.C. currently has the highest poverty and child poverty rates in Canada, and does not have a plan to address it.
The board voted unanimously in favour of sending the letter, which will be drafted by Bendig and chair Lenora Trenaman.
“There’s never enough money for education,” said Trenaman. “There’s never enough money for families, and we feel it in our schools. You heard it when we talked about fees, you heard it when we talked about poverty in our district. We have been talking about this for a long time.”
Trenaman said teachers and administrators have been coming up with creative ways to get students the support they need, but they’re not being supported financially by the government. In many cases, teachers pay out of pocket for essentials such as food and supplies.
Meanwhile the students suffer.
“We know that children who are hungry don’t learn well. We know children who are cold or who need clothing, they can’t focus. For that in itself, this is difficult. But if you have a family that can’t afford three square meals a day or runners, and then we put fees on top of that, how can we help them?”
She said the government needs to take action.
“We would like to see our province take the full initiative, take the bull by the horns and start taking care of our kids.”
Trenaman said she feels conflicted about charging children additional fees.
“Legally we can do this, but with our values, that’s where the challenge is. Because we want to provide for these kids. I think it’s pretty safe to say that all the trustees believe in public education and believe it should be publicly funded,” she said.
“There’s fees, and then there’s fees, and then there’s fees on top of that, because they’re not properly funding public education.”
Bendig noted that Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall recently introduced legislation urging the government to address child poverty as well, for the fourth time in four years.
“This is legislation that would address our concerns,” he said.
Creston Valley Teachers President Becky Blair took the opportunity at the end of the meeting to add her voice to the debate, saying that the current fee system would have excluded her when she was a student.
“Ask any teacher. Most parents are not going to ask for help. My parents would not have come forward, and I would not have gotten that art class. Public education is in a position right now, you have to realize, where we’re really struggling,” she said.
“Every piece of money hurts.”
Nelson and District Teachers Association president Paul Boscariol said the fees are a cause of concern for everyone, with the system creating a hierarchy of students.
“We’re creating a huge wedge in accessibility. We’re quasi-privatizing by doing this. It’s very much like sending your kid to private school.”
Bendig said he hopes the government gets the message.
“One of the greatest tools we have as a society is a strong, well-funded education system that will help raise our students out of poverty. When the government looks at this I hope they see a universally accessible public education program as an important part of the future of this province.”