School board to apply for funds that may keep two rural schools open

School District 72 is going to take a shot at money that could re-open two rural schools slated for closure at the end of this school year.

The school board voted Tuesday to apply for Rural Education Enhancement Fund (REEF) money announced by the provincial government last week. The fund came much to the surprise of trustees and educators in the province who were proceeding with the already announced closure of rural schools.

SD72 trustees voted to close Discovery Passage and Oyster River elementary schools earlier this school year but the announcement of the REEF money raised the possibility of obtaining the funds necessary to keep the schools open for another year at least.

Trustees were skeptical that the money will actually be awarded, citing politics as being the reason the provincial Liberals suddenly came up with the money. However, Trustee Daryl Hagen summed up the reason why a slim majority of the SD72 board decided to pursue the funding, even though the district went through an extensive public consultation process before making a controversial decision to close the schools which had low enrolment and whose operation was being subsidized by other schools with higher occupancy.

“I don’t want to give up the money without at least asking for it,” Hagen said.

Trustees debated whether to pursue the money at their June 21 regular board meeting. The decision to go ahead with pursuing the money came down to voting on two separate motions which generated an unexpected moment of drama.

Hagen declared to the board a conflict of interest regarding any debate about Oyster River School but was fully willing to discuss Discovery Passage School.

When it came time for a motion, Hagen moved that the board pursue the funding for Oyster River School. After some discussion, a vote was called and it resulted in a tie with Hagen, Jocye McMann and Ted Foster voting in favour. John Kerr, Richard Franklin and Gail Kirschner voted against. It required board chair Susan Wilson to cast her vote and she voted in favour.

Then Hagen excused himself for the discussion about Oyster River. A motion identical to the Discovery Passage motion was moved and seconded and opened for debate. It was then that trustee Franklin pointed out to the board that with Hagen excused from the room, the motion for Oyster River would go down to defeat if voting lines went the same way the Discovery Passage vote went.

Franklin informed the board that for that reason, he would vote in favour of the Oyster River motion because it would not be fair to pursue the money for one school and not the other.

“We can’t apply for Discovery Passage and not Oyster River,” Franklin said. “So, I am going to vote in favour of it for that basis only.”

The Discovery Passage vote passed with Franklin, McMann and Foster voting in favour and Kirschner and Kerr voting against.

Trustees expressed frustration and a degree of cynicism over the whole process. Many feel the province has put the school board in a difficult position by raising the hopes of parents in the neighbourhoods of the schools slated for closure.

“I find this sort of upsetting. It’s hard to make a decision when you don’t know all the facts and yet we’re expected to make a decision without knowing anything – well, a lot of things,” Hagen said. “What bothers me is a government that would wait so long and then reach out and say ‘Well, maybe we can keep this school and maybe we’ll keep this school.’”

“I’m outraged,” he said later.

Some trustees were also skeptical about whether Campbell River School District would even see any of this money because of the politics involved. It was pointed out that if Campbell River were to get the full amount of money it would need to keep both schools open – about $914,000 – then that would amount to a significant portion of the $2.5 million the government has made available for the whole province. It seemed unlikely that an NDP-held riding would get approximately 37 per cent of the total when there are school districts in Liberal ridings that would be eligible.

“I find this very frustrating from a government I know wants to buy some votes,” Hagen said.

“Politically, we are not in a government-held riding. We’re in an NDP riding,” Trustee Kerr said. “The other three areas where schools can apply for funding are in areas where the Liberal MLA is in political trouble.”

Whether SD72 meets the criteria set out by the government for the REEF money is unclear as well but the district was encouraged to apply – by today – in order to determine whether it was eligible or not.

The ministry said it will have an answer by June 30.

The application will require a special meeting of the trustees in order to evaluate what the province gives them – if anything – and they would  need to debate a bylaw to move forward with keeping the schools open. To that end, a special meeting, open to the public, will be held June 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the school board office on Pinecrest Street.