Langley School Board Campaign Kickoff: First Impressions

It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, I took a step back from writing on urban planning and Langley politics and decided to focus on family, health and a business. You know, the important stuff. This isn’t to say that urban planning and local politics isn’t important – which is probably why this by-election has me backsliding back into the realm of Langley’s political scene.

What’s Going On

Just as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was taking off, Premier John Horgan of the NDP decided to call a general election due to his political advantage so he could form a majority, and form a majority he did. Part of this new majority government was one of Langley’s newest MLA’s, Megan Dykeman. Since Dykeman had been serving as a Trustee on our School Board, her election led her to resign the position which triggered a by-election which is set for February 27th.

Between the announcement of her resignation and the candidate deadline, 7 candidates have stepped forward to sit on the board for the next 18 months before the 2022 municipal general elections.

Why I Care, Why You Should Care

As someone with 4 kids in the Langley School Board, ages 6 through 13, I have a pretty heavy interest in what goes on with schools in our district. Schools also play an important role in our urban and social landscape. Elementary schools especially are a place where parents congregate (although slightly less so these days), meet each other and form friendships. The parks and playgrounds that are beside our schools are common public spaces that create a focal point for many neighbourhoods. For these reasons it is unfortunate that there is a long history of a lack of cooperation between the Langley School Board the Township of Langley Council.

It was actually this lack of cooperation about a decade ago that got me involved with civic politics. Prior to 2011, I had been involved in several provincial and federal campaigns and had never engaged much with municipal politics. However, a corrupt land swap between a developer, a school board that was desperate for money, and a Council that shared interests with an outside-of-Langley development industry as opposed to parents woke me up to how important local politics is in our day to day lives. I won’t cover that story here – you can read about some of it here: How INFLUENCE May Have Elicited Planning Failures in Willoughby & Brookswood.

By-Elections Do Matter

Despite the importance of civic matters to our daily lives, engagement continues to be very low. Even getting people out to vote can be a challenge. It’s a bit sad that in our last municipal general election, many of us were “happy” to see a 30% turnout in the Township of Langley. Back in 2011, it was under 26%. However, just prior to the 2011 general election, the Township of Langley actually had another school board by-election. In this by-election, only 3.8% of registered voters bothered to exercise their democratic rights – and this was amidst some of the biggest controversies our school board have ever faced.

However, by-elections are more important than you might think. Cecilia Reekie squeaked by that 2011 by-election with 1,311 of the votes cast, but handedly won her re-election campaign later that year. Likewise, after just missing out twice before, my friend Nathan Pachal was able to win his 2016 by-election bid for Langley City council. In the 2018 campaign, Pachal not only won re-election, he topped the vote count, beating out many well known, established names. By-elections can give an opportunity for fresh faces to prove themselves.

What’s At Stake?

So beyond this 2021 by-election being a potential stepping stone for the 2022 general elections, what else is at stake for the next 18 months?

I spoke with a few people on the board, as well as some DPAC members and parents “in the know” and they came up with a number of items that they think that the new trustee will have to deal with in the next year and half.

First, new schools. Yes, we’ve heard this all before and there are a number of school slated for Willoughby, including the new Donna Gabriel Robbins Elementary School. However, many parents believe that with all the new construction that we are going to run into another capacity crisis similar to what we saw a decade ago. I myself agree that the algorithm for school projections need to change. Using outdated national averages may prove to put the school board out of touch, as single family homes and even townhomes are out of reach for homeownership or even rentals for many young families. This isn’t the year 2000, much less 1980 or 1960.

The ongoing middle school transition is also at the forefront in many Langley communities outside of Willoughby. While I disagreed with the transition to the middle school system in the first place, an ideologically-driven staff powered this through over a decade ago and the transition hasn’t been very smooth. Challenges continue to lay ahead and we require leadership on the board for Langley’s future.

Rumour is that there are also some high level changes coming in regards to staffing at the district. This could include the upcoming retirement of the Superintendent, which would require a succession plan by the board to fill that role.

Finally, we have the C-word. It is impossible for everyone to agree on pretty much anything to do with COVID-19, and it’s impossible for any government to escape criticism of their respective response. While some believe that schools are over-burdening parents and children, others believe that they aren’t doing enough. Some believe schools should be back to normal, whereas others think schools should be at home. There is no shortage of opinions. Yet many people don’t know that the School Board has very little to do with school responses to the pandemic – this is up to the Province. So any leadership in regards to a response to the pandemic needs to be a collaborative liaison to the current NDP government.

7 Candidates: First Impressions

After 10 years of writing about Langley politics and being fairly engaged, I usually know most people who end up running for any local office. However, this doesn’t mean I know everything about them, what they stand for, or even much about their lives. Additionally, there are always a handful of candidates I’ve never heard of. This campaign is no different.

As we head into February, there hasn’t been a whole lot of coverage on most candidates, so I’m going to provide my candid first impressions below of each of the 7 so you know where I’m coming from, as I’m sure my biases will shine through, which is always something I’m pretty transparent about. I will again remind my readers that I am not a journalist. I do not hide my editorial behind a veneer of unbiased journalistic integrity. In this post, more than most, the following represent only my opinions and experiences. I do state that I have, without reservation, no financial or political association with any of the candidates. Without further adieu, in order of name on ballot:

Candidate: Joel Neufeld

I got to know Joel first on the 2018 municipal election campaign trail at a number of events. Whether it was setting up chairs at the Fort Langley Community Hall or putting up campaign signs, he always had a massive smile on his face and he seemed to be genuinely happy to just be helping out a friend. I had a few discussions with him over the campaign: he didn’t seem overly “political” and didn’t indicate any political ambitions. Over the years, I bumped into him sporadically. One time he donated a bunch of furniture or kid’s items for someone in need when I put a shout out on Facebook. Another was for a walk in Fort Langley in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. My first impression of Joel as a candidate is someone who gets genuinely involves with his community wherever his passions and good nature leads him. Joel reached out to me early in the campaign to learn about the history of the school board and what concerns parents of Willoughby have, which I obviously appreciated. Joel Neufeld has strong support in Fort Langley and within the first responder network.

Candidate: Holly Dickinson

Holly is, admittedly, one of the names I didn’t recognize on the ballot. This, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My circles tend to be more overtly “political” (especially with Council) than many of those involved on the school board. Holly is a product of the Langley school system and is now a teacher herself in Surrey, with firsthand experience teaching out of portables and an academic background in Psychology and Education. This is obviously her world. When I sent out my questionnaire to the candidates (answers to be posted this coming weekend!), she was the first to respond and she followed up with a great discussion. Although my contact with Holly has been limited so far, she strikes me as a warm, personable individual with a dedication to learn as much as teach. Like others who get involved on the school board level, she doesn’t come across as a politician and really has a genuine passion for education. Holly Dickinson may have some labour backing (although I haven’t confirmed who the LTA is supporting).

Candidate: Alex Joehl

No doubt if you’ve lived in Langley for a couple years, you may have seen Alex’s name a few times. Alex is Langley’s perennial Libertarian candidate, running in pretty much every election at every level of government that is available to him. I believe this is his first foray into the school board elections, but he has run as the Libertarian candidate in the federal (2019), provincial (2017, 2020), and municipal (2018 – Mayoral candidate) campaigns. Alex comes across as a guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously, but does take his ideals and ideology seriously. He is a true Libertarian, always advocating for smaller government, decrease in regulations, and letting the free market do it’s own thing. It’ll be interesting to see how his ideology translates into a school board campaign. In early communications with Alex, it would seem his sticking point will be fiscal responsibility. Alex’s support base will likely come from his personal database of libertarians.

Candidate: Grant Gilmour

Grant Gilmour is one of the two names I didn’t recognize of the seven. A quick Google search indicated that Grant is a Fort Langley resident who runs an accounting firm in Langley and is a Rotarian. Grant was also one of the first to get his questionnaire back to me, which he has already posted to his campaign’s facebook page. The primary message of his campaign appears to be about the response to COVID-19 in schools. Grant Gilmour’s voting base will likely come from his Rotarian background, who still hold some weight at the ballot box.

[Edit: I have been informed that Grant has run in a school board election before – anyone know when!?]

Candidate: Stacey Wakelin

Stacey Wakelin is another name most armchair politicos in Langley will know, and many in the community will recognize as a regular candidate. Stacey has run on the federal (2019 – NDP) and municipal (2018 – councillor) elections and is seeking her first victory here on the school board. Stacey has been a long time advocate for inclusivism in the Township of Langley, including involvement in the school district. She has been a proponent of SOGI123 and other LGBTQ2S+ activism. In Wakelin’s 2018 council campaign, I did not endorse her, but only because I did not know much about her positions. She did end up getting the questionnaire I sent her in after my endorsements, which is a shame since I likely would have endorsed her run for council based on her answers. Stacey Wakelin has earned some heavy endorsements this time around with former Trustee Reekie and former MP, John Aldag on her side.

Candidate: Charlie Fox

Easily the most recognizable face among the candidates due to his lengthy time as a teacher in Langley as well as 13 years as a Township of Langley councillor until his (temporary?) retirement from politics in 2018. He is also the only trustee candidate to have served as an elected official (that I’m aware of) and therefore has the most available record. It is therefore impossible to have a “first impression” of Charlie as a candidate in 2021. My first experience with Mr. Fox was during the 2011 Routley land swap controversy that I previously mentioned as the reason I first became involved with local politics. Following the public hearing, Fox accepted a significant campaign contribution from the developer who was responsible for the development he was in the process of deliberating on. This rezoning effectively killed any hopes that the Routley neighbourhood would ever receive the school that had been planned in the Neighbourhood Community Plan, adopted just 6 years earlier. Since Mr. Fox had been a known staunch pro-development councillor, I doubt that this money influenced his vote. However, it did solidify that he shared similar interests with the developer that opposed the 800+ residents that physically signed a petition against the development. In the decade since this first impression, not much has changed. Charlie Fox’s support base will likely come through significant name recognition, especially in south and east Langley.

Phyllis Heppner is another repeat candidate who is taking her first strike at the school board trustee position. I endorsed Heppner’s run for council in 2018 due to her balanced approach for development in Willoughby and her stated commitment to proper urban design principles. Phyllis also ran for a nomination to be the federal Conservative candidate following the resignation of the late Mark Warawa in 2019. Although she and I had some great conversations during her 2018 campaign, I have not heard much since her 2019 nomination run, but I’m happy to see the Brookswood music instructor back in the running. Heppner’s primary support will likely come from more grassroots campaigning and building on her database of personal support.

Coming Soon

10 Questions That Matter: Your Langley School Board Trustee candidates answer questions you didn’t know you had!

Authorized by, Brad Richert, registered sponsor under LECFA, 123-456-7890

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