Oyster River parents wonder why they’re not considered ‘rural’

Schools: What is a rural school?

While there were some alternatives presented at last week’s community consultation regarding the possible closure of Oyster River Elementary, one overarching question hung over the room and pervaded the discussion.

Many parents of children who currently attend Oyster River wondered why the school, which they say falls under the “rural school” category in the BC Schools Act – being located outside a municipal boundary – did not qualify as such in the recently adopted School District 72 (SD72) 10-Year Facility Plan.

The school is located in Area D of the Strathcona Regional District and is well outside the Campbell River municipal boundary, and while Area C schools (Discovery Islands – Mainland Inlets) were expressly exempted from the discussion of school closure possibilities, the community feels Area D schools were not afforded the same luxury.

Rural schools are scheduled to be addressed during Phase 2 of the Facility Plan, where the district has said it will look at optimizing rural school use and look at “right-sizing” schools and examining alternative ways to “share costs, services, and functions” within those facilities.

But Oyster River wasn’t included in the district’s “Rural” category, instead being categorized as “Campbell River South” in the Facility Plan alongside schools like Sandowne and Georgia Park, instead of alongside schools like Sayward Elementary or Quadra Elementary, which those in attendance at last week’s consultation said would be a more accurate categorization.

“As Oyster River Elementary is ‘rural,’ as defined in the School Act, I respectfully suggest that any questions about its future should (also) be referred to your Phase 2 Planning exercise, along with the other rural schools, such as Sayward and Quadra. Oyster River School should be given the same consideration as these schools as it is more comparable to them than most other facilities within the municipal boundary,” wrote Brenda Leigh, regional director for electoral area D, in a letter to the Board of Education, which she presented to each trustee at last week’s meeting.

“(Oyster River Elementary) is surrounded by hundreds of acres of farm, forest and resource-based lands and, therefore, should have been given the same consideration as other schools in the Electoral Areas outside the municipality which you publicly exempted from consideration for closure and referred to Phase 2 of your Facility planning process.”

That “public exemption” refers to the public letter issued by the Board after the announcement in November last year that schools would be considered for closure, and the uproar that followed – specifically from residents of Area C (Discovery Islands–Mainland Inlets). That letter was meant to quell concerns about possible rural school closure, but specifically referenced Area C, saying, “The only possible school closures being considered at this point are of two elementary schools within the greater Campbell River area by the end of June 2016. The report does not contain a recommendation to close any of our Area C schools.”

In her own letter penned to the district, chair of the school’s Parent Advisory Council, Bobbi-JoThulin says she agrees with Leigh and gives examples of how she feels Oyster River is more like other rural schools in the district than it is like a municipal school.

“Oyster River School is essentially the heart of this community,” she writes. “This school is not only the backbone of education for our growing children but also a hub for families and our neighbours to gather. Over 75 families rely on Oyster River School facilities for special events, community outreach programs, early and after school group child care and also as a source of free exercise and play. It is a voting station, weekend fun spot for the local kids meeting on their bikes and also families using the large soccer fields for soccer games and baseball.”

District Superintendent Tom Longridge says that while he “completely understands how the Oyster River community feels rural to them,” the district’s consideration for what schools are, indeed, “Rural,” in producing the Facility Plan were based on a combination of mailing addresses in the schools’ catchment area being “Campbell River addresses,” along with “proximity to another school,” and feels the district has been, “consistent in how we’ve looked at things.”

Longridge said while the Oyster River community may feel rural compared to Campbell River, the district can’t base their decisions on how people see themselves. After all, Campbell River itself is considered rural for many people. From the district’s perspective, they needed to categorize the schools based on the difficulty of providing the services at those facilities.

“When you’re asking us to compare the challenges of Oyster River and its possible closure – having another school 11 km away – versus a school like Sayward – whose next closest school is something like 80 km away – or schools like Quadra or Cortes, and all of the extra complication that comes along with ferries,” Longridge says, “well, that’s not even a fair comparison.”

But Thulin says people move to their area for the rural lifestyle it affords them, and the lack of a school will be extremely detrimental, despite another one being relatively close from the district’s perspective.

“Seeing a school boarded up and vacant is not only an eye sore and draw for crime and mischief, but also a deterrent and a sadness that not only packs a family up and away from the area but deters anyone from moving in,” she writes.

She ends her letter by urging the district to, “perhaps look at the long-term devastation that could affect the students and families should SD72 choose to close another school without giving the time to exercise all the options.”

Time which the Oyster River community says is being afforded to Sayward and Quadra Island, but not them.