Oyster River comes to board with alternative to school closure

Oyster River parent suggests school board consider converting community school into a learning centre

Two of the public submissions to the Board of Education at this week’s meeting again requested that Oyster River Elementary be withdrawn from consideration for closure.

Instead of just pleading with the board not to close the school, however, one proposal provided an alternative for the board to consider.

Bobbi-Jo Thulin, chair of the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) at Oyster River Elementary, told the board that with more time to look at more alternatives to closure, the community could revitalize the school.

She presented the board with a petition with 1,340 signatures that has been presented to the Minister of Education, and requested a consultation process to consider converting the school into a neighbourhood learning centre. That learning centre, she said in a package presented to the board, “could offer Oyster River and surrounding neighbourhoods amazing opportunities and encourage community growth.”

She suggested partnerships with other provincial ministries and community partners that could make the facility more of a hub of learning than simply a district school.

The ideas range from partnering with the Ministry of Agriculture and the B.C. Farmers Association to teach local children and families about the importance of local food security and sustainability, start a community farmer’s market, composting site, community garden and greenhouse to partnering with local artists and galleries to offer art classes and gallery space.

“We feel it is time the Board of Education gets proactive in this district and help the community and families find and establish alternatives to closing Oyster River School,” Thulin says.

The board, for its part, said that’s exactly what it is doing during the closure process – looking for alternatives to consider.

“This is not a school closure process. This is a school closure consultation process,” said chair Susan Wilson when asked by Brenda Leigh, representative for Area D of the Strathcona Regional District, why the board has not removed Oyster River Elementary from the discussions and moved it to Phase 2, as requested numerous times by the community. “We are consulting. We have given a start date and an end date. We need to stick with the dates that have been given. At the end of the consultation, we will have a vote. We are asking for and we are hoping for input and information,” Wilson said, so they have as much information as they can gather –including any possible alternatives – when they vote.

“I understand how stressful this is (for the community) and we are not taking this lightly. This is something that we are giving very deep and thoughtful consideration to.”

One issue that may arise from the PAC’s idea of creating a neighbourhood learning centre, however, is that because of how the Ministry of Education calculates capacity, if the board keeps Oyster River Elementary open, any excess space – including space that is leased to other organizations or used for purposes other than school enrolment – would still count against the district during any applications for capital funding for maintenance and renovations to facilities.

Secretary-Treasurer Kevin Patrick explained to those in attendance that excess capacity – school space that is not full of students registered with the school district – has, “a negative impact on the approval process for future capital funds,” if the space could possibly be full of students from elsewhere within the district.

“Depending on where that capital request is for, they will look at nearby facilities,” Patrick said. “If there are two schools that are both half empty, and both require $2 million worth of work, the ministry will just say, ‘rather than giving you $4 million to do them both, why not combine schools and just do one?’ They will reject the approval and ask, or rather encourage, the district to make the choice to consolidate those facilities.”

Trustee Joyce McMann brought up the concept of possibly “partitioning a school” and selling off part of a property, creating a situation where the empty space in a facility isn’t even owned by the district, and therefore wouldn’t factor into the ministry’s “surplus capacity” calculations. Patrick said that is something that could be considered by the board, as the district is involved in just that kind of arrangement with North Island College on the Timberline Secondary property.

The consultation process continues next week with another round of public consultation sessions at both Discovery Passage Elementary (Tuesday, March 1) and Oyster River Elementary (Thursday, March 3). The meetings are scheduled for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in each school’s gym.