Cranbrook newspaper highlights problems at College of the Rockies

By Gerry Warner, Townsman Staff

There were some touching moments and some interesting revelations at a meeting of the provincial Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services in Cranbrook Tuesday.

The committee has been traveling the province since Sept. 15 hearing input from a wide variety of individuals and organizations on what they feel should be financial priorities in the 2009 - 2010 provincial budget.

The committee's last meeting is scheduled for Oct. 16 in Coquitlam and it must report to the legislature by Nov. 15.

One of the most interesting submissions at the hearing Tuesday came from Kathy Bonell, president of the College of the Rockies (COTR) Faculty Association. She said the college has been hurting financially ever since March this year when the provincial government cut its core funding by 2.6 per cent, resulting in the college's first operating deficit in years and a projected deficit for three years.

"The college has made it very clear to faculty, students and families in the region that it will not in this current fiscal environment continue to operate programs in the manner that we're accustomed to," she said.

This has resulted in program cuts, course cuts with a minimum of notice for students and closure this fall of COTR's licensed pre-school which has provided programs and services to children from Cranbrook and the surrounding area for almost 30 years, Bonell said.

The popular Transitions Program for adults with cognitive disabilities has been cut from 25 hours of contact time per student-a-week to 12.5 hours. The cut represents a real hardship to a program that's been a cornerstone of the college for 20 years, she said.

Several university transfer courses have been cancelled and others have been "collapsed" or merged with other transfer courses, she said. This makes it difficult to build trust with students because they're not sure if the course they register in will actually be offered in the fall.

She said the college has also introduced a "10 students or less" cancellation practice which results in courses not required for a certificate or diploma being in danger of cancellation if the numbers are too low.

Bonell asked the committee to recommend restoration of the 2.6 per cent funding grant taken away in March. She also recommended earmarking $200 million from the current budget surplus to allow post-secondary institutions like COTR to increase access and affordability.

She also called for tuition fees to be reduced over the next five years, restoration of the student grant program and revision of research funding guidelines to allow colleges and institutes better access to research funds.

One of the most touching moments at the hearing came from Fernie mother Janice Brulotte who told the committee about her daughter Grace who suffers from a rare congenital birth defect called "Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, similar to Muscular Dystrophy.

"Grace is 12 years old, and even though she can't do a lot of physical things other kids can do she has done many other amazing things," her mother said. Grace plays the piano with one finger, writes a column for the Fernie Free Press and has been chosen to be a student reporter for the 2010 Paralympics.

Despite not being able to walk, feed herself or comb her hair and take care of herself functionally, Grace's intelligence is unaffected by her disease and she attends school regularly with the full time help of an educational assistant (EA).

However since going to high school, Grace has been taken away from her classmates at lunch time and forced to eat in a room away from her peers because the funding was no longer sufficient to cover her full day at school.

"I am beseeching you on behalf of all the special needs children in the province of B.C. When you are planning the budget for 2009, and for many years to come, please do not forget these kids who always seem to be forgotten and society seems to believe they do not play a viable role in our community's lives?"

Brulotte's plea resonated with committee chair Randy Hawes. "It seems to me the school board should be able to deal with your daughter in a more appropriate way than this."

Another impassioned plea was delivered by homeless advocate Andrea Goertzen, who told the committee "I'm sure you all realize this is a huge problem" in booming resort communities like Fernie.

Goertzen, a single mother with three children, said she moved back to Fernie after five years and even though she's fully employed finds it almost impossible to make ends meet.

"I'm a single mother working hard but there's no way for me to progress because there's such a gap between low income people and the wealthy. We're not happy and I think you should hear that because you should take care of the people that vote you into power."

At one point in her address, Goertzen asked for two minutes of silence "to think about the people who do not have roofs over their heads."

Committee member John Rustad thanked Goertzen for her "passion" and chairman Hawes urged her to put pressure on her municipal council and Victoria to do more for the homeless.

Other presenters included Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce President Connor Stewart who asked the committee to examine the benefits of funding major improvements to Highway 3 to facilitate growth in the area. Tammie Monsell, the former president of the Fernie Chamber of Commerce also urged improvements to Highway 3 in the rock bluff section between Elko and Fernie.

Dan Murphy, coordinator of the Rocky Mountain Trench Natural Resources Society, asked that the government not scrap the $4.3 million Provincial and Regional Ecosystem Restoration Program which is needed to restore grasslands in the region.

Wasa resident Susan Ashmore asked that a small percentage of provincial tax revenue be used to fund lake group societies and others fighting to preserve valuable shoreline areas in the province.

Chartered accountant Ken Atwood said the Kootenays are booming now but with the current dark financial clouds on the horizon consideration should be given to raising B.C.'s small business tax threshold to $500,000 to make it consistent with Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario and boost the economy.

Click here to read Kathy Bonell's entire presentation to the Committee.

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.