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Stronger together, in light of funding shortfalls from the GNWT
Chairs reflect on improving relationship between school boards

Evan Kiyoshi French
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, January 24, 2015

Simon Taylor said the Yk1 board and his own Catholic school haven't always got along.

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Simon Taylor, chair of the Yellowknife Catholic Schools board, said the city's boards have been getting along better in recent years. - Evan Kiyoshi French/NNSL photo

The Yellowknife Catholic Schools Board chair said in the past the school boards - which compete for funding and students - have had their differences, but in light of funding gaps from a fiscally-strained GNWT, they have been working together. He said the boards offer different choices for students, but recognize they have many things in common. So they've been sharing their playbooks in tackling problems they face together.

"For many years the public school district and ourselves have actually been quite confrontational," he said. "For the last few years the boards have been actually collaborating, and I think this issue of junior kindergarten compelled us to work together."

Yk1 Board Chair John Stephenson said junior kindergarten - which the GNWT declared was programming NWT school boards had to offer, before pulling the plug on funding - was indeed an issue the boards agreed upon. He said over the last couple years the collection of school board chairs across the territory have worked together in trying to overcome common problems.

"(We've) been working very well together, we've been having conversations about common interests, common concerns and the junior kindergarten was a predominant concern. We're already doing it, as a user pay, and we believe it's a good addition to the education system," he said. "We worked very closely together to present our concerns about the lack of funding."

Taylor said co-operating boards - which have taken their problems to the people, holding town hall meetings and gathering suggestions from parent advisory committees - can better serve students in the city, despite the lack of funding from the GNWT.

"The people of Yellowknife should be happy with their education system in that they haven't allowed it to get watered down," he said.

Suzette Montreuil, president of the Commission scolaire francophone - the city's French school board -- said increased co-operation between the boards is the work of Stephenson, and when the boards have appeared to be butting heads in the past they're really just looking out for the interests of their students.

"He's a great rallier of the boards, and that's a great thing," he said. "We're not going against the other boards, we're just trying to stand up for our own students."

She said she didn't like how optics - during the much-debated proposal to swap J.H. Sissons to satisfy a GNWT court order - made it appear that the boards were at war.

"It kept looking like we were competing directly with them, and that's not what we're trying to do," she said. "We were just trying to build our own high school here, and in Hay River."

As it turned out, the GNWT won an appeal - nullifying the need to expand space for the French board. The case is being taken to the Supreme Court of Canada, but if it isn't heard Montreuil said she hopes increased co-operation with the other boards will help to make their interactions work smoothly.

"If we have to stay with the court of appeal's decision, then we will share some facilities," she said. "I'm hoping that will mean we have a better agreement that we did in the past. But I genuinely do feel that the relationships between the boards have improved.

Montreuil said the boards share a position regarding the GNWT's calculation of enrolment in their schools.

"Their calculation for space occupancy is a fairly mathematical kind of thing," she said, adding that the boards feel the formula is flawed in that it doesn't account for the various classroom needs schools have. She said music rooms need extra space to house instruments and specialized classes, like home economics, have needs that go beyond a calculation of students per square metre. "It's what you're doing in the classroom matters as well," she said.

Stephenson said he's looking forward to hearing terms of reference for a review of the junior kindergarten program, although nothing a decision won't be made on the matter before the election.

"I applaud the premier for taking a pause in this, there was a lot of concerns expressed from school boards, from daycares, from MLAs, and the premier ... took the right step to say, let's take a step here and take a look at it and see how it's going."

In the meantime, he said the school boards are on the hook paying to implement the program to date.

"We still haven't seen the number for that," said Stephenson. "So that's one of the items that we have asked our administration to keep asking the department for."

Jacqueline McKinnon, communications officer for ECE, said she couldn't comment on the financial status of the GNWT.

Glen Burns, director of corporate affairs for the GNWT, did not respond to questions before press time.

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