The Students First team is a group of seven school trustee candidates who have found common ground in their desire to provide the strongest possible educational foundation for the Valley’s children.
The group includes Keith Chicquen, Barb De Groot, Joanne deLure, Cathy Schmidt, Candace Spilsbury, Joe Thorne and Rob Hutchins.
Most of them attended an all-candidates session at Lake Cowichan’s Centennial Hall Oct. 29 where they stated some of their positions to the crowd.
Chicquen has spent 25 years in education as a teacher and now works as an instructional director at Vancouver Island University.
His career has seen him at all kinds of schools, where, he said, he’s "done a great deal of budgeting" in various capacities.
Chicquen has coached sports, worked with chambers of commerce, and now has worked hard with both the aboriginal community and the business community to develop relationships and programs.
De Groot said, "Education is the most important thing we can do for our children. Public education needs to be supported, and not with rhetoric."
She said she saw many challenges in the coming years "but each trustee is vital."
According to deLure, a 25-year Valley resident with an extensive background in business and administration, a new board is needed.
"No more voting along political lines. We need healthy debates but we also need to be fiscally responsible," she said.
When it comes to working with higher levels of government, deLure wants trustees to "stop demanding and start collaborating."
Schmidt, born and raised in the Valley, was elected as a trustee in 2008 and again in 2011.
An enthusiastic volunteer as well, she’s been teaching dance at Tansor Elementary for 20 years.
Schmidt said she wants "more consultation about effective programs for aboriginal and special needs students."
She also stressed the need for "a respectful board."
Spilsbury said her many years of experience as teacher, principal, administrator
and trustee, "gives me a clear view of what excellence in education looks like. I have dedicated my life to education. I know the issues."
She said more funding is needed, especially for aboriginal education and to increase graduation rates.
All candidates were asked whether or not the district and its students benefited from the previous board’s controversial decision to send in a deficit budget, which saw them fired and replaced by a single appointed trustee.
Leading off, deLure replied, "No. The citizens of this Valley got one administrator. They didn’t get to participate in any debate when decisions were made."
Spilsbury also thought the result was negative.
"We didn’t get additional funding. We lost our voice. I still feel strongly that it was against our oath of office, and was a bad model for students," she said.
Chicquen agreed. "This province underfunds education at all levels but that set a poor example. It was the demise of democracy and made this district a laughing stock," he said.
De Groot replied, "It depends. We didn’t have much of a local voice. We’ve lost so much. There are ways to better approach [something like that]. Being fired made a big splash in the newspaper but it didn’t benefit students."
Schmidt saw both sides. "My answer is yes and no. There were some difficult decisions made; some of them benefited kids. But who did the parents go to when we were fired? Their voices were silenced," she said.
Two additional members of the Students First team, Rob Hutchins and Joe Thorne were unable to attend the Lake Cowichan meeting.
Thorne has worked closely with both the school district and Vancouver Island University towards developing and implementing a successful trades training program for aboriginal students.
He has brought students to board meetings to talk about how much they are enjoying the chance to move their lives forward through education.
Hutchins, who has been mayor of Ladysmith and chair of the Cowichan Valley Regional District board, is now trying for a board seat in addition to running for Ladysmith council.
He said he liked the Students First group because of their pledge to honour the School Act and pass a balanced budget.
He also wants to see "success for all students including improved graduation and transition rates, Aboriginal Education, special needs support, early learning and earlier intervention for children needing literacy assistance."