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MLAs Fassbender, Virk given education portfolios

Premier Christy Clark introduced two new faces to B.C. public education today, appointing Surrey-Fleetwood MLA Peter Fassbender and Surrey-Tynehead MLA Amrik Virk as ministers of education and advanced education, respectively.

At a announcement ceremony outside of BC Place in Vancouver, Clark introduced Fassbender, three-time Langley mayor and a former Langley School Board trustee, by citing his "outstanding track record... of getting things done.

"He's going to ensure, in addition to traditional academics, that children will have more access to the trades and arts while they're still in secondary school," she said, adding Fassbender will also work with re-appointed Finance Minister Mike de Jong on launching the $1,200 Registered Education Savings Plan grants for families with children born on or after January 1, 2007.

Fassbender is scheduled to step down as mayor of Langley in July, triggering a byelection for the city to be held this fall.

Outgoing BC Teachers' Federation President Susan Lambert says it helps when government appoints education ministers who have a public education background. Previous education ministers Don McRae and George Abbott both worked as teachers before turning to politics.

"(Fassbender will) bring his perspective as a trustee to that role and that's useful and that provides him a background. That's an opportunity for all of us to move forward," she told The Tyee.

"I think that what Minister Fassbender has to do now is bridge the gap between the bargaining table and cabinet and ensure that sufficient resources are brought to the bargaining table to alleviate the deteriorating conditions in schools and to reduce class sizes, bring in more supports for students with special needs, and respect the profession of teaching so that it can be a competitive one."

Lambert had no comment on the re-appointment of North Vancouver-Seymour MLA Jane Thornthwaite as a parliamentary secretary for education, saying she did not have a chance to meet with the former North Vancouver School Board chair since she was appointed parliamentary secretary for student support and parent engagement last September.

BC School Trustees Association President Teresa Rezansoff is also encouraged by Fassbender’s trustee past, saying he will understand that “complexities and struggles” trustees around the province face in their jobs.

Also new to her position, Rezansoff says she’s looking forward to meeting with Fassbender as soon as possible “for us to develop a working relationship that’s going to work towards the betterment of public education as a whole.”*

Clark said Advanced Education Minister Virk's responsibilities will include working with other ministries, like education and jobs, tourism, and skills training*, as well as post-secondary institutions, and "working with students so that they aren't just ready for the jobs of the future, they're ready to create the jobs of the future."

Virk, who took a leave of absence from his position as inspector for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to run for the Liberals, has been a member of the Kwantlen Polytechnic* University board of governors for five years, and also sat on Simon Fraser University's Community Engagement and Outreach Board in 2007.

Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC, says Virk's experience with Kwantlen isn't very important to the position, saying "he's pretty much an unknown to our sector." Rather than focusing on his experience at one university, Oliver wants the Virk to take a more province-wide look at post-secondary education. *

"It's really important we get a meeting as soon as we can and we have lots of issues we need to talk to him about, and one of them certainly is the funding of our institutions. And we'd like to start addressing some of those issues and see what his take is," she told The Tyee, adding post-secondary operational funding has decreased 13 per cent in the last decade, while student debt has increased to what a typical mortgage looked like 20 years ago.

"All of that's just not working in citizens' favour, frankly, and we all know that post-secondary education is needed for all new jobs."

Oliver is disappointed the Industry Training Authority (ITA), which oversees trades training and apprenticeships in the province, will remain under the ministry of jobs, tourism, and skills training instead of advanced education. She says the ITA, which she likens to a football because of how it has been shuffled between ministries over the years, belongs under advanced education because over 90 per cent of trades training takes place in post-secondary institutions.

The Tyee has contacted the BC School Trustees for comment on Minister Fassbender's appointment. We will continue to update this story as those comments come in.*

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

*Updated at 4:50 p.m., 5:24 p.m., and 6:12 p.m.

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