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Education Minister George Abbott visits New Westminster

Education Minister George Abbott -
Education Minister George Abbott
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Education Minister George Abbott's tour of new full-day kindergarten classes in New Westminster Monday wasn't just a cute photo op.

He also got a sense of some of the hot-button issues affecting School District 40. In a meeting with parents groups, Abbott faced questions about the slow-moving school capital projects, teacher job action, and funds for special education. He also had a dinner meeting with the school board where the government's vision for special education was discussed.

"He is a responsive minister of education. He does listen and he does take the time," District Parents Advisory Council chair MaryAnn Mortensen said, adding that, though Abbott had scheduled 30 minutes with DPAC, he ended up talking to them for an hour.

However, they didn't get all the answers they were looking for.

According to Mortensen, Abbott said he was "optimistic" about signing off on the three new schools before the end of the year, but couldn't make any promises.

"Would I like more information? Of course I would. Every one of us would like to see it in writing," said Mortensen.

DPAC also asked Abbott to ditch current plans to build the schools sequentially, and instead explore building two—or even all three—at the same time.

Abbott said he would think about it, according to Mortensen.

"It's kind of exciting but I don't know whether it means anything. I don't believe that the minister's statement is a guarantee," said Mortensen. "He was as candid as he could be but he doesn't have all that information in front of him."

School board chair Michael Ewen said that the school board and the ministry have been discussing the possibility of building two schools at the same time, but that it involves complicated logistics.

"It could mean spending millions on portables and students going to school in a construction zone," Ewen said.

In the school board's meeting with Abbott, Ewen and his colleagues expressed gratitude for the progress made on the capital projects.

"We all understand the sense of frustration but I keep pointing out that this is the most complex capital project that the ministry has ever attempted and the most expensive," Ewen said.

One thing Abbott was clear about was job action by teachers. According to Mortensen, he told parents the ministry was not getting any closer to solving the contract dispute.

Ewen said that teachers' negotiations were not mentioned during the school board's meeting with Abbott.

The school board did, however, raise special education as one of the challenges facing the district.

"Though supports are provided, we would like to do more. All districts would like to do more," said district superintendent John Woudzia. "The challenges are all financial on all fronts."

Woudzia said the minister was receptive to hearing about the challenges but the meeting focused on a discussion of the government's vision for personalized education through the sorts of programs offered at New West schools.

Before the two meetings, Abbott visited a Montessori class at McBride elementary, a kindergarten class with ESL emphasis at Queen Elizabeth, and an international class at New Westminster Secondary School.

"He was quite impressed with the nature and the depth of the programs in the city," said Ewen.

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