The School District 72 Board of Education voted this week to close both Discovery Passage and Oyster River Elementary schools after just over two months of community consultation, but the elected representative of one of those communities says there’s still hope for their school.
Despite the vote not going her community’s way Wednesday night, Brenda Leigh, Strathcona Regional District Director for Area D – where the now-slated-for-closure Oyster River Elementary is located – says the fight “isn’t over.”
Leigh says she feels the community has a strong case for the Ministry of Education to review the process and refuse to sign off on the board’s decision, though she won’t reveal the grounds of her complaint.
“I’m not willing to make that public, because it’s a quasi-judicial appeal, and I don’t want to give the other side my arguments,” Leigh said. She did, however, say she feels “there were several ways in which the School Act was not followed during the consultation process,” and she thinks the community has a strong case for the Ministry of Education to review how the board arrived at its decision.
Even Trustee Joyce McMann – the sole dissenting vote on the board Wednesday (Trustee Daryl Hagen had declared a conflict of interest early in the process and as such could not be present for the discussions or vote) – admitted that the cost of providing education at Oyster River was significantly higher than at other schools in the district, which made the decision more difficult.
“I found the process of considering the future of Oyster River to be extremely conflicting,” McMann said. “I have heard the passion from Oyster River families to be recognized as being distinctly rural and distinctly different than perhaps some of the other school populations in our community, but I don’t think the current model can continue without sacrificing a lot of educational benefits for the other learners that we have in our school district.”
The vote to close Discovery Passage the night before was unanimous, despite every trustee around the table – at both meetings – expressing deep remorse. Trustees said they have no alternatives due to the lack of funding from the government, declining enrolment in the area and aging infrastructure within the district.
“Our board has repeatedly alerted the provincial government that the unexpected downloading of costs and annual removal of money from our budgets has resulted in our buildings being millions of dollars in repairs to make them safe, our school supply budgets have been reduced to minimal amounts, we’ve had programs eliminated, and made class sizes near the max,” Trustee Richard Franklin said Tuesday.
“B.C. has the highest level of child poverty in Canada and is the second lowest province behind P.E.I. for education funding per pupil. Clearly, in my opinion, the government in Victoria has its priorities wrong.”
He added that he, like both of these school communities, wishes the board had more time to work on these financial problems, but said, “this year will probably be the most difficult budget cycle for planning that this board has ever experienced, and next year will probably be even worse.
“That’s why I reluctantly speak in favour of the motion (to close the school).”
Trustee John Kerr, along with other members of the board, echoed many of Franklin’s sentiments when he spoke Wednesday.
“The average cost of a student to attend (Oyster River) is almost $4,400 per student per year more than it would [be] if he or she attended Ocean Grove Elementary,” Kerr said. “Over the six-year period that a student would attend this school, this cost is in excess of $25,000 more than it would be to attend another elementary school in Campbell River.
“Given the inadequate funding for our schools provided by the provincial government, this is not sustainable. In reality, the rest of the students in the district are subsidizing the education of the students in Oyster River School.”
Kerr said that over the past several years, the district has supported Oyster River Elementary, and others, by drawing on its reserves to make up for the shortfall in funding, but this is no longer an option, because the downloaded costs by the government keep mounting, and the funding provided isn’t covering those requirements.
“Never in my 40 years in schools can I remember the public education system facing the pressures it now does,” Kerr said.
Kerr also thanked the community for its input, concerns for consideration and suggestions for alternatives the board has received over the 60-day consultation period, but there was, in his view, simply nothing that could be done that would have a great enough effect on the situation to remedy the desperate position the district has been put in by the government.
“I’ve been impressed with the wide variety of thoughtful suggestions on how to save this school and the civil, respectful and courteous manner in which they have been offered,” Kerr said, “however, neither our senior management team, nor I, personally, can see where any income generated by implementing any of these suggestions could come close to erasing this shortfall.”
Both Oyster River Elementary and Discovery Passage Schools are scheduled to close as of June 30, assuming the Ministry of Education does, indeed, sign off on the decisions made this week by the Board of Education.
After the vote to close each school, the board also voted in favour of the Ripple Rock Elementary School catchment area absorbing the Discovery Passage Catchment area, and the Ocean Grove catchment area extending to cover the current Oyster River catchment.
All students in the Discovery Passage and Oyster River catchment areas will now automatically fall within the extended catchments of the receiving schools.
The deadline to apply for cross-catchment transfers has been extended to today (March 18) for any student currently enrolled in either of the schools slated for closure, should they choose not to attend their newly-assigned facility. Many parents of Oyster River students, based on the questions heard at both the consultation sessions and the meeting Wednesday night, may be looking south to School District 71 (Comox Valley) to see if they can get enrolled there, rather than going north.
Leigh, for one, wouldn’t blame them if they did.
“If they’re going to treat us so badly – and I think we’ve been treated pretty badly in this process – why should we stay? Why should we care?”