Langley School Board Needs Fresh Ideas

If you’ve been following Better Langley over the past month or so you know I’ve been watching this by-election pretty closely. On February 1, I entered my first impressions of the seven candidates and then sent out a questionnaire with 10 questions that I thought that mattered. I was extremely thankful that all 7 candidates took time out of their busy campaigns to respond: you can read their responses here. On February 17, fellow REALTOR and community advocate, Candy Ashdown and I hosted the TalkLangley.com “Meet Your Candidates” Live Event, with full attendance by the candidates, despite several candidates having prior engagements, and strong viewership.

You can imagine I was quite disappointed to read that the advance polling and request for mail-in votes was so low – just 376, according to election chief Bob Wilson. This, especially after seeing 10,710 voters come out in the Chilliwack by-election just the other week. I don’t know what percentage this is of eligible voters this is, but I know in 2018 Chilliwack had under 65,000 eligible voters. Even if this increased to around 70,000 in 3 years, it would be over 15%. Of course, it could be argued that we don’t have “star candidates” like Carin Bondar or inflammatory trustees like Barry Neufeld, so it’s probably understandable that interest is much lower.

That said, let’s not embarrass ourselves. Democracy is important and so are our schools. I’ve done my part on staying educated and trying to keep others informed of the candidates, so if you could take the 3-5 minutes to run in and vote on February 27, I would greatly appreciate it, and so would your candidates.

So onto my opinion about this 2021 Langley School Board By-Election.

Every election has dirty games, so I’m not going to berate anyone for engaging it. We always say its always getting worse, but I think that’s just human nature to have that perspective. I personally think the candidates were, for the main part, very civil and respectful of other candidates and the general public. Yea, I witnessed different “camps” go to war against each other and a lot of accusations of improper conduct flung around, but nothing out of the ordinary.

I came into this election fully admitting 3 things. I’ll write about a each below, followed by a brief statement on which candidate(s) best understand my point of view.

1. School Projections & Site Acquisitions

First, I want a candidate who will look past the slavish adherence to the Barger Program that had us attached to a national average for projecting school numbers. I know these numbers are wildly outdated for new communities where more and more young families are moving into condos. The prices of detached homes and townhomes have skyrocketed to a point that many families can’t reach. Just 10 years ago the median price for a Langley condo was $219,500. A townhome was $302,500 and a single family home was $512,000. Wages have not increased, but prices have. Established older homeowners have no clue how limited housing options are for those coming into the market with young kids. Today, the median condo is $430,000, townhome is $650,000 and single family home is $1.17m. Using projections from an archaic time will lead areas with an explosion of new condos into tragedy. Maintaining old paradigms will not benefit our students. Comparing what is going on in Willoughby, which is almost doubling it’s number of condo units in one year, to what the rest of Canada has done over the past 20 years is not acceptable.

Unfortunately, although I know otherwise because of how other school boards have operated, many people believe the status quo is the only way. This is false. We can have a better way to plan and pay for new schools – but who is going to challenge the system and work best with our MLA’s and the Ministry of Education to get it done?

LEADER: JOEL NEUFELD. Joel’s advantage on this item is obvious. While others have stated that they disagree with the Barger Program, and of course support new schools, only Joel has provided a detailed solution to the current problem. He’s asked around, listened to the experts and seems to be willing to be a strong advocate for being a disruptor to the status quo.

We are planning neighbourhoods and communities in Willoughby based on these numbers, but if the numbers and trends change, we will face serious capacity  challenges. Many of the people moving into Willoughby are young couples just starting a family, or with young families. And many will increasingly only be able to afford  apartments. 

Joel Neufeld

RUNNER-UP(S): HOLLY DICKINSON, STACEY WAKELIN. Holly’s firsthand experience as a teacher “stuck” in a portable in Surrey gives her intimate knowledge of the situation. She comes from the next generation of teachers who really understand what current teachers and students are going through and what their living situations are.

For many young families, condo living is the only affordable choice. Additionally, I have worked in enough schools to know that the projections never seem to reflect the actual number of students who enroll. 

-Holly Dickinson

Stacey Wakelin has agreed with me in the past and again stated, “I do not believe this is an accurate projection. They said this in Vancouver and the projections were incorrect.”

I believe Holly and Stacey agree that there is a serious problem, but I didn’t get an indication over the period of the campaign that they have a solution for the problem or that they would be strong proactive advocates for disrupting a very established system. Other candidates either admitted they needed more information before making comments (Alex Joehl, Grant Gilmore), maybe side stepped the question a bit (Phyllis Heppner) or outright rejected any problem and advocated for continued use of the Barger Program (Charlie Fox).

2. View of /Experience with Parents & Students

One of the most frustrating school board trustees I ever came across in the Township of Langley was someone in the past who seemed to have utter contempt for parents. Anyone who disagreed with her was shut down and treated with disrespect. It would be hard to see that sort of attitude again. It’s okay to disagree with parents, but you have to still treat them with respect. Parents should be an ally, not the opposition to you getting what you want.

Additionally, it’s easy to “love kids” in this role, and I think all 7 candidates really do have a strong care for the students of Langley. But what contemporary experience do they really have? How much involvement to school board trustees REALLY have on the ground? Not much. Trustees aren’t dealing with kids as much as some might think. Yet they still need to really understand the contemporary challenges of what shifting kids around from school to school does, of how technology has changed relationships and how our adult political correctness isn’t necessarily translating to a safe space for all students. How much do the candidates understand the needs of students and their parents? I know from the time I had one child starting in the education system to having 4 ten years later, my views and paradigms have shifted significantly.

LEADER: HOLLY DICKINSON. Holly is a lifer in Langley and has intimate contemporary knowledge and experience in the current education system. She also has the advantage of understanding two different boards: Surrey and Langley. My hope would be that, if elected, she could leverage what she has learned and what she will learn from one district to another. Over the course of the campaign I have been impressed by her extremely loyal following who have been one of the most respectful armies I’ve ever seen. I could see Holly as a bridge builder type between parents and trustees. Although she is likely coming into the role with her own ideas, I could see her accepting of fresh perspective.

RUNNER UP(S): STACEY WAKELIN. Stacey has been a strong advocate for parents and students for years through DPAC and many other volunteerism opportunities. I personally believe Stacey understands the ins and outs of the school board system and offers the strongest perspective of a highly involved parent.

Most candidates have long time associations in one way or another with the Langley school board. Charlie Fox is an established personality who those who grew up with him as a teacher or principal have fond memories of. Whether or not he can handle any input from someone he disagrees with would be something new for me to see after watching his long time on Council. Like myself, Phyllis had 4 children grown up through the Langley school district. I would say Joel Neufeld has the least experience with the school system, but could come into the position with new eyes, untainted by years of politicking, as his daughter is just starting this year.

3. Board Makeup

Finally, and I know this is not a popular sentiment, I feel that “collaboration” can often lead to complacency. The public too often sees disagreements in government as dysfunction – a word that gets thrown around a log. It’s not. We need disagreement. We need people who view things different and are able to speak their minds and progress new ideas, albeit constructively and respectfully. As many people know, I don’t generally agree with Township Councillor Kim Richter, but I definitely can appreciate how her often dissenting voice can be a sharp tool to keep others accountable. I know this is where I’m going to have a lot of friends disagree with me. Over the course of the campaign there was a lot of talk about a spirit of collaboration and cooperation on the board.

This feels fanciful at best, but complacent at worse. Well, actually, worse than complacency is conspiracy: having everyone agree to everything. Let’s not start in that direction. This can be a problem with political parties and slates. Without conflict, there is rarely growth. Like minds can be great, but they can also stir an organization down the wrong path very quickly. I truly believe that we need some respectful differences of opinion on any board and a makeup of people coming from different backgrounds.

This is where it’s a bit unfortunate that I fear a bit from one of my favourite candidates. We already have a LOT of people on the board that are either teachers or really ingrained into the pseudo-political school structure. Do we need another one right now? Some people will say yes. Some people will say that another teacher will only add to the strength of the board. Some think you must be heavily involved with DPAC or PACs. I’m wary of this. I love teachers. I appreciate what PACs do. But I am concerned of the weight of the board leaning in one direction without fresh, different, or outlying perspectives.

LEADER: JOEL NEUFELD. One of the greatest arguments against Joel’s candidacy has been his lack of experience in the system. I completely understand. But what’s significant more important to me is that after a decade of complaining about our projection model, our school site planning and the lack of transparency on the board, Joel was the only one to take it seriously, come talk to me about it one on one and come up with some real solutions. Would someone with more preset ideas about how things work do this? I don’t know. I’ve already seen how people I’ve endorsed take the easy route and tow the establishment line.

RUNNER UP: GRANT GILMORE. This might surprise some people. Grant doesn’t have much social media presence, but if I was as unbiased as possible and looked at what this board needs, I think a numbers guy is pretty obvious. Others can stick to social media. I honestly wished Grant campaigned more on his accountant background and less on COVID response because when you look at what the school board is actually responsibly for, it’s a lot of money issues and I think Grant would be a huge asset in that regard, no pun intended.

I’ll use this opportunity to talk about the board makeup to say who I will not be endorsing this time around, but who I truly hope runs in 2022. First, Holly Dickinson: she needs to be on this board. This position is suited for her and I could see her being a constructive person on the board. Despite what I stated above, I do think we need good current teachers on the board. I also hope Stacey Wakelin also runs for school board in 2022. Although she’s made attempts on two different government levels before, I do think that the school board is where she has a lot of passion and is well suited for the role.

I won’t go into detail on the other candidates, but I would like to say that this doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re not great candidates. I think perhaps some of the other people who are running are better situated elsewhere in the political area, or just weren’t matching my own paradigm to compete with others. Again, just my opinion.

Endorsement: JOEL NEUFELD

After Candy Ashdown decided not to run for Trustee in this By-Election, I readily admit that Joel was one of the two people in the first week of the campaign that I was quickly started leaning towards. Yet I was still open to almost any of the announced candidates. Many seemed like strong contenders and, well, we can only pick 1 (not 5 like we usually do). However, Joel was the only candidate to talk to me directly, very early on, about my experiences with the school board over the past 10 years. He listened to me gripe about the Routley Land Swap and my thoughts on how the housing market has been radically re-shaping the demographics of household types and he promised it was on his radar. He later came out with some specific solutions, which is something I always appreciate in politics: I like tangibles.

Joel doesn’t come across as someone who will play populist too much – he’ll speak his mind when needed. Yet, he isn’t purposely antagonistic and he’s proven he’ll stick his neck out for the right causes. He also won’t come into the seat with a lot of pre-disposed ideas about things he only half-knows. I’ve watched over the course of his campaign how he was really listened to what people were saying.

However, I knew his weaknesses regarding being a relative newbie to the school scene and I purposely made sure this was one of the questions asked at the Talk Langley Meet Your Candidates Event. In fact, it’s his newness that’s one reason I feel this by-election is the right time for Joel. I know Joel probably can’t do much in the first 18 months regarding his ideas about school site planning and acquisition, but it is time that he CAN get up to speed on the topics that everyone else can assist him with. I don’t think he needs to sit on a PAC to do this. In fact, every candidate comes in needing to get up to speed and I would bet that the accountant might have less “catching up” on what goes on at the school board than most of the candidates.

Honestly, we don’t have time to waste if my projections hold even remotely accurate. It’s going to take time to shift the way things are and it can’t be done by one person. By having Joel on board for the remainder of the term, it will hopefully see him 100% ready for the 2022 term, hopefully joined by some of the other candidates. In the meantime, there are some great current trustees, even some who don’t agree with each other, that would be awesome mentors for any new trustee coming in.

I can’t tell you who to vote for. Joel is my pick for this time around because of the fresh perspective he has on the district and his tangible solution-based paradigm that I think can’t wait for 2022.

So this February 27, vote. Vote for your conscience, vote for the person that makes sense to you. Vote for the candidate that you feel will make Langley, all of Langley, a Better Langley.

Authorized by, Brad Richert, registered sponsor under LECFA, betterlangley@gmail.com

Brad Richert and a Better Langley has no financial or political commitment or affiliation with any candidates.

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