School board candidates concerned about curriculum changes, mandatory vaccination, special needs

·10 min read

As locals head to the polls Oct. 18 to elect their top choices for municipal council, school board elections will take place at the same time for Livingstone Range School Division and Holy Spirit Catholic School Division.

LRSD candidates discussed their platforms Oct. 4 in a virtual forum based out of Fort Macleod, while the HSCSD forum is set for this Wednesday, Oct. 13.

Livingstone Range School Division

Two spots are available for Ward 3 on the LRSD board. In the running for these positions are incumbents Lori Hodges and Lacey Poytress, while Purdy Martodihardjo is looking for a first term with the board.

Lori Hodges (incumbent)

Lori Hodges has been a school board trustee for almost a decade, including four years as vice-chairwoman, two years as chairwoman and four years on the Alberta School Boards Association for Zone 6.

“I have the experience, knowledge and relationships to continue to work for the best interest of students in our jurisdiction,” she said at the forum.

She is a member of the awards and recognition committee and the Regional School Council and Regional Council of Student Leaders committees, and is Alberta Teachers Association/LRSD trustee liaison and a representative for the Alberta School Boards Association Rural Caucus.

Her work with the Livingstone Leaders Committee has allowed her to work closely with administrators and students to help mentor them and develop their leadership skills.

If re-elected she will continue to advocate for more mental health funding and petition the provincial government on behalf of students.

Hodges believes there will be challenging times ahead. In the next term, she said, the school board will face a decrease of $2.2 million in funding.

The new curriculum unveiled by the United Conservative government will pose difficulties as well, she said, as it will have to be adapted to suit different levels of learning. She plans to advocate for staggered learning, in which new classes are introduced to students gradually.

With Covid policy, it’s best to find a middle ground, she said, supporting people’s individual choices regardless of whether they choose to get the vaccine or not.

“Freedom of choice is a really big thing,” she said. “I think people who choose not to be vaccinated have their own personal reasons as to why they cannot, and some of them are very legitimate.”

Maintaining daily operations through Covid has been the school board’s greatest accomplishment so far, she added.

Lacey Poytress (incumbent)

Lacey Poytress is a big believer in local choices and local voices.

She just completed her first term as a school board trustee representing Ward 3 and is currently vice-chairwoman. She also serves on the labour relations, discipline, regional school council, and wisdom and guidance committees.

“I believe that all students in Alberta are entitled to a quality education, regardless of their location, economic standing, race or religion,” she said at the forum.

“I believe in the importance of fostering open and honest communication between parents and families, while respecting the rights and roles of parents and guardians.”

Poytress is proud of what the school board has accomplished since she was elected. In the past four years, the board acquired land in Crowsnest Pass to host events and place-based learning, and moved trustees into a new building. Busing became internally operated, which helped decrease costs.

She agreed with Hodges that the two major issues going forward will be loss in funding and implementation of the new curriculum.

“Not only is it a lot for our staff to wrap their heads around and to then bring forward, but also for our students to have a whole new way of learning brought to them when they’ve already undergone online learning,” she said, referring to the curriculum.

“This is a big adjustment.”

Work is already being done to help bridge the transition, she added.

Like Hodges, she feels the new curriculum is being implemented too quickly and said she would like to lobby the government to stagger its introduction, introducing new concepts through a pilot project where a few classes are tested, two grades at a time.

“The timing may have been right before the pandemic came, but right now, it’s just a lot,” she said.

She would like to see the school board consider more innovative forms of transportation, including communal car pickups and smaller 16-passenger vans that could carry children to and from school instead of buses.

Poytress is in favour of tracking data for special needs students to better determine the cost of their learning, and she would like to keep on top of the budget so the board can pay for classroom aids.

She believes vaccination is the choice of the individual and does not approve of a vaccine mandate for board members.

“I believe that we live in a wonderful country and that we have freedoms in our country,” she said. “It is important for people to be able to have their own personal beliefs and I think those should be protected.”

She would continue to advocate for masking, handwashing and social distancing measures.

Purdy Martodihardjo

Purdy Martodihardjo said her background as an immigrant and a single working mother has made her understanding of differences, and she promised to advocate for students from all backgrounds and walks of life.

“I understand that every student has a different family background and situation,” she said at the forum.

“Beliefs, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, political and societal viewpoints can all differ, but one thing we as parents and grandparents, caregivers and guardians have in common is we all want what is best for our children, and that includes the best education and the best educational circumstances possible.”

Martodihardjo is interested in a board position because she has seen first-hand how specialized education has benefited her son, who has special needs and has been enrolled in public school since he was three.

“My child is now a well-rounded, fully caught-up student with a bright future ahead of him,” she said in a followup email to Shootin’ the Breeze. “That would not have happened without the support from some of the LRSD staff who have gone above and beyond.”

She is currently an office administrator at Fort Macleod Alliance Church, helping to organize volunteers and assist with ministries. She is also a respite caregiver for a woman with cerebral palsy.

Martodihardjo is passionate about helping people with disabilities and said she would like to see a budget that has room for special-education programs.

Like her fellow candidates, she agreed that the new curriculum is problematic. She suggested that it be implemented after the pandemic so that it can be given proper attention, with input from all Alberta school divisions.

The proposed curriculum would see classes on Roman kings, medieval social order, the Mongol Empire and the Magna Carta introduced to Grade 2 students, and Martodihardjo feels these subjects are not age appropriate.

“As a parent I don’t think that it is wise to present a new curriculum in the midst of a pandemic where children, parents and school staff are struggling just to keep their heads above water and are dealing with unprecedented circumstances and the fallout from that,” she said.

“There are more children behind in basic educational areas such as reading and math, and the overall mental health of our children and staff has suffered.”

While vaccinated herself, Martodihardjo is not in favour of mandatory Covid-19 vaccination.

“I believe everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind if they do that or not,” she said.

Holy Spirit Catholic School Division

One spot is available for Ward 4 on the HSCSD board. In the running for these positions are Bart Denie and Blake Dolan.

Bart Denie

Denie, a pharmacist and manager of the local Pharmasave, has never been involved in politics or schooling before, but his love for the community drove him to run for the Catholic board.

“I am passionate about having all the opportunities possible in order to have the best education for our students,” he said.

“I am the type of person that will speak up and let people know what is important to me, my community and school family. I want to be that person who will stand up for them. I am looking forward to conversing with students, teachers and parents in order to help them achieve the best schooling possible for our children.”

As a father of two children attending St. Michael’s, Denie has an interest in helping students grow and achieve their potential. He is also a deputy grand knight for the local Knights of Columbus organization, a position that allows him to give back to the community.

The greatest issues facing the school board, he said, are Covid recovery and money.

Adding to the money problems, he said, is that school funding is determined by the government rather than the school board itself.

Since the province is attempting to introduce big budget changes that will be finalized before the school year begins, he said, it could lead to problems down the road, particularly if the funding is allocated before enrollment numbers are determined, leading to an inadequate budget.

“We as the board need to push the government to re-evaluate the system of funding in order to allow our division and the schools within it to have the proper funds to give the students the best educational experience,” he said.

Blake Dolan

With decades of experience as a teacher in the Catholic school system, Blake Dolan has worn many hats and has seen all sides of the education system.

He was a teacher at St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek for 35 years and a substitute teacher for five, primarily instructing high schoolers in math and science. At one point, he taught at a rural elementary school where he also served as a guidance counsellor and as a co-ordinator for student services, work experience and special projects.

Dolan is a member of the Knights of Columbus and St. Michael’s Church. He is also a board member for Pincher Creek Community Adult Learning Program.

“Pincher Creek and St. Michael’s have been kind to my family over the years,” he told Shootin’ the Breeze. “I thought doing that community service as a school board member would be a way to give back.”

Dolan said he has more time to devote to the community now that he is retired and his children are out of the house.

The biggest issues facing the school board, he said, are job safety concerns related to the pandemic, inflation challenges, budgeting in a rapidly changing world and the new curriculum.

“I believe the new curriculum is in need of revision,” he said. “Some school districts are piloting it this year. What were their experiences, both good and bad? What did they learn? What changes do they suggest? [I’d] talk to all groups involved. What resources are in the community that could help bring the curriculum alive? A good curriculum is more than just facts.”

Voting information

Residents will be given the opportunity to vote for these positions at the same time and place as they cast ballots for Town of Pincher Creek, MD of Pincher Creek or Crowsnest Pass councils.

The forum for HSCS Ward 4 is this Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m., and can be viewed online at youtu.be/LatgSFhXFMY. The LRSD forum is available at youtu.be/Nl0EI_mmvUQ.

Gillian Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze

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