Discovery Passage and Oyster River Elementary Schools, which were slated for closure after this school year, will remain shuttered.
The board had voted in favour of closing both Discovery Passage and Oyster River Elementary schools earlier this spring after the government-mandated 60-day consultation period, much to the dismay of the residents of those two outlying areas of the district.
But on June 15 – just before what was to be the final School District 72 (SD72) public meeting of the school year on June 21 – the provincial government threw public school trustees and administrations across the province a curveball.
The government announced the possibility of additional funding being made available to prevent prospective rural school closures. By law, school districts in B.C. must submit balanced budgets to the government each year, and many school districts across the province had voted to close schools in an attempt to do this.
The newly-announced fund was called the Rural Education Enhancement Fund (REEF), and school districts were being encouraged to apply to see if they would qualify and be able to keep those schools open that were slated to close.
In the announcement, the government explicitly named both Discovery Passage and Oyster River Elementary as possible recipients for that funding.
And so, at the June 21 meeting, SD72 trustees voted to at least apply for the funding – despite their own skepticism at the prospect of actually receiving any of those funds.
Much to their surprise, the Ministry of Education did, in fact, offer the district some money. The district was offered an additional $161,372 should they keep Discovery Passage open and $228,005 to keep Oyster River.
The board decided, however, those amounts were simply not enough to cover the cost of operating the schools. They had requested $508,000 to keep Oyster River open and almost $524,000 to fund Discovery Passage, so they were offered approximately 40 per cent of their request.
“The amount of funding districts will be eligible for is to be equal to their expected savings from closing the school,” the June 15 government announcement read, but that was, in fact, not the case. The funding offer covered staffing and equipment, Secretary-Treasurer Kevin Patrick told the board tonight, but not maintenance or even the cost of utilities like power and gas.
“You would assume you need heat to keep the building open, but they didn’t fund that. Why? We don’t know.”
It wasn’t just an oversight or miscalculation on the government’s part, which could later be corrected, Patrick said in answer to a question about whether the board could go back to the government to revisit or reconsider the amount being offered.
“They did acknowledge that this [amount] wasn’t what we had asked for. They did point out that it didn’t meet the maintenance piece, so they do know that they made that decision.”
He also doesn’t know if information on how the funding decisions were made by the ministry will be released.
But however the ministry made their decisions about which districts would get funding – and how much – it doesn’t appear they applied the same standard across the board.
School District 53 (Okanagan Similkameen), for example, was able accept their offer from the ministry and save Osoyoos Secondary School with their REEF funding, which consisted of $387,000 in operating funds and an additional $103,000 of deferred maintenance funds – covering the entire $490,000 the district had requested.
Likewise, the Quesnel School District accepted their offer of $282,090 for Kersley Elementary and $248,802 for Parkland Elementary – which were also the full amounts requested by that district.
Both of these school districts are in Liberal-held ridings.
The third of the four districts that received a funding offer through the REEF program, Okanagan Skaha, was granted $369,815 for Trout Creek Elementary in Summerland and $369,404 for West Bench Elementary in Penticton, which were slated to close after this year, as well. Information is not currently available on their decision or the amount requested.
Trustee John Kerr summed up SD72’s assessment of the situation and their decision to reject the funding offer.
“I’m pretty angry with what the government has done here,” Kerr said. “They put it out there in such a way that boards had hope – that parents had hope – that the money would be forthcoming to keep their children’s schools open, and we basically get 40 cents on every dollar we requested, putting us in the position where we would have to come up with almost $360,000 to keep Oyster River school open next year,” calling the government’s offer “a political ploy.”
“The government had built up hopes and provided some small amount of money and tried to distract the public from the government’s role in this whole situation and cast the board back into the position of being the villain who is heartlessly closing this small school. Personally, I resent being put in that position. I guess it’s my job to be in this position, but they’ve painted the board into a corner, and we’re essentially in a situation where, to be fiscally responsible, we only have one choice,” Kerr said, which was to reject the funding offer, as accepting it would mean somehow coming up with an additional half-million or more and swallowing the approximately $75,000 that has already been spent on the transition of students and staff to new schools since the decision was made mid-March to close the facilities.
“The initial announcement of this funding was so clearly political,” says North Island MLA Claire Trevena after receiving the news. “This government has had the chance for years to properly fund education in the province and now they’re responding to a crisis going into an election year.”
She also says she is, “not at all surprised that it’s the Liberal ridings that are receiving 100 per cent of what they’re asking for. This government plays politics with everything they do,” but admits the SD72 situation may be a bit different in that they had school closures built into their 10-Year Facility Plan well before the decision was made to close these two particular schools.
Trevena says, however, that the Facility Plan was developed to include closures because of the chronic underfunding of education by the government in the first place.
“It all comes back to the fact that districts all across the province, Campbell River’s included, are seeing funding levels that aren’t keeping up with cost increases because the Liberal government is not funding education properly.”
Board chair Susan Wilson said after the vote to reject the government’s offer, that what is important now is that the community continues to come together in support for those affected by the closures and recognize there will be benefits in the long run.
“Through this whole process, the board has done their utmost to give this the most thorough and thoughtful consideration,” Wilson said. “It’s a decision that, as you know, has not been reached easily, but we do believe that as difficult as this is right now, that it will result in successes for all the students of the district,” adding that senior management and staff will continue to work as hard as possible to make the transition a smooth one and asking for parents’ cooperation.
“Focus on the positives,” Wilson asked of parents and community partners affected by the closures. “Yes, there are losses, but there will be things – that perhaps aren’t obvious right now, but I’m sure there will be – some things that are unexpected and will be really appreciated and enjoyed.”
UPDATE: JULY 7
SD72 LETTER TO MINISTRY OF EDUCATION
School District 72 has issued the following letter, addressed to Minister of Education Mike Bernier and others, including all boards of education across the province, the City of Campbell River Mayor and Council, the Strathcona Regional District and the Campbell River Teachers’ Association.
Dear Mr. Bernier,
Thank you for your response to the application from our school district, School District 72 (Campbell River), to the Rural Education Enhancement Fund. At the special public board meeting on June 30, 2016, the Board of Education decided to respectfully decline acceptance of these funds and proceed with the closure of the two identified elementary schools in our district, Oyster River and Discovery Passage.
It was decided that to accept the funding would add approximately $500,000 to the district’s deficit. The Board determined that it was unwilling to impose that additional burden on our district, and instead has chosen to invest the approximately $900,000 in savings which will result from the closure of these two schools to improve instructional resources, to improve our educational infrastructure, and to address some of our deferred maintenance costs. Our Board believes that this is the fiscally responsible course to take.
While we appreciate your understanding that the gap between requested and actual funds had an impact on our decision, the financial aspect was one of several factors that the Board of Education took into consideration, including educational benefits to students, transition process, updating technology, maintenance and operating costs to aging facilities, excess space, and our new Facility Plan.
Educational benefits of the closure of these two schools include greater concentration and a more efficient and effective allocation of district support services for students with special needs, as well as classroom supports to improve the learning of all students. Being in a somewhat larger school allows more flexibility for appropriate class composition when considering academic, social, and other factors. There can be fewer split grade classes. A school with more staff allows better opportunity to match student learning style with teaching style.
Since the decision was made to close these two schools in mid-March, our district has conducted and almost completed an in-depth transition process involving students, parents, and staff. Students from each of the schools identified for closure have been visiting their new schools with classroom visits, picnics, and interactive activities. Consultative meetings with parents and parent advisory councils have identified areas of concern and appropriate solutions. The very complex staffing process has been completed for next year. The process of physically preparing for the moves is well underway. The extensive budget process was developed around the scenario of closing both schools.
Fewer schools would support an updated technology plan that would increase student ability to access technology in the classroom. The fewer the number of schools, the less the infrastructure costs for wiring, hardware, networks, and technician support.
Financially, closing two schools that were less than half full due to declining enrollment would reduce the number of facilities for maintenance and capital repairs to our aging facilities, and reduce administrative overhead, allowing for these savings to be reinvested in educational programming, and /or redistributed to other sites to aid in improving their condition.
The amount of unused classroom space within our district is a factor we understand the Ministry considers as they decide which districts will receive money for building improvements, repairs, and /or new construction, as surplus space still has heating and maintenance costs. By deciding to close these two schools, the Board believed it was acting in accordance with government requirements and best practice of efficient use of resources.
A thorough and detailed two year process resulted in a new ten year Facility Plan for our district, and this plan was accepted and passed unanimously by the Board in December 2015. Keeping the two elementary schools open would have a negative impact on subsequent recommendations in the plan.
The Campbell River Board of Education has done its best to responsibly fulfill its mandate. The Board has been guided by its desire to provide the best for all students in the district, and to operate within a balanced budget. We have acted responsibly and in good faith, and will strive to continue to do so.
Original Signed by Susan Wilson
School District 72 (Campbell River)