Trustee Ted Foster (left) listens intently Wednesday night as Trustee John Kerr reads his statement about why he will vote in favour of closing Oyster River Elementary. The board voted 4-1 in favour of closure. Trustee Joyce McMann was the sole vote against and Trustee Daryl Hagen was not present

Fight for Oyster River Elementary ‘not over’

Board of Education votes in favour of closure, but regional director says there are grounds for an appeal

Despite the vote not going her community’s way Wednesday night, Brenda Leigh, director of Area D of the Strathcona Regional District – 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 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 their decision.

“There were several ways in which the School Act was not followed, and we weren’t given a fair opportunity,” she told the Mirror after Wednesday’s meeting.

The Board of Education voted 4-1 in favour of closure Wednesday night – as they had also done 24 hours earlier in regards to Discovery Passage Elementary – after expressing, once again, their sincere regret for having to do so.

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 even 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.

“However, my major point of conflict comes in wondering how we might explore a miracle cure or these opportunities that may lie beyond the boundaries of what we’ve explored so far,” she said, adding that she, like the rest of both communities whose schools are now slated for closure, wishes they had more time to consider alternatives.

“We’ve been accused a number of times over the last two months of putting money before children’s educational experience, but I think its’ impossible, in this political environment to separate the two.

“Money equals educational experience for everyone in our district.”

Trustee John Kerr agreed with McMann’s assessment, saying, as he had also done the previous night about Discovery Passage, that due to the provincial government’s significant and ongoing underfunding of public education, there simply isn’t enough money flowing into education to have some schools subsidizing others.

“The average cost of a student to attend (Oyster River) is almost $4,400 per student per year more than it would if he or she attended Ocean Grove Elementary,” Kerr said. “Over the six year period that a student would attend this school, this cost in 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.

Both Oyster River Elementary and Discovery Passage Schools are scheduled to close June 30, assuming the Ministry of Education does indeed sign off on the decisions made this week by the Board of Education.

The deadline to apply for cross-catchment transfers has been extended to March 18 for any student currently enrolled in Oyster River Elementary, should they choose not to attend Ocean Grove Elementary, though many parents, 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?”

The next public meeting of the Board of Education is scheduled for April 12.