The gymnasium of Discovery Passage Elementary was filled with sombre faces of concerned parents and community members Monday night at the first of a series of community consultations being put on by School District 72 in their consideration of what seem to many to be imminent school closures.
After a presentation filled with numbers and statistics – rationale for senior staff choosing Discovery Passage when asked for a recommendation for closure by the board – by district superintendent Tom Longridge and secretary-treasurer Kevin Patrick, the night consisted of groups of parents gathering around tables in the gym discussing and documenting their concerns alongside school trustees and senior staff and brainstorming possible alternatives.
Frustrated voices raised concerns about how the closure will affect the area’s economic development and questions about the school also being the city’s emergency muster station north of the river, but the overall tone was one of disappointed resignation. There were a few calls for the district to hold off on the closure to give people more time to come up with alternatives, but most of the discussion surrounded not “if” the school would close, but “when?”
Some called for each school board trustee to come spend a day in the school – to see the learning atmosphere they’re deciding whether or not to extinguish – before making their final decision on the closure, but the majority of points raised surrounded how the transportation for the children to their new school will work and the availability of supports for them in acclimatizing them into their new facility, retaining the culture that has been built at Discovery over the years and whether the cross-catchment application period will be extended for parents should the school close, so parents can choose a school for their children other than Ripple Rock.
All of the public’s questions and suggestions were documented and taken away at the end of the night for consideration by the board.
“It’s what I expected,” said an obviously dejected Sarah Perry after the meeting.
Perry is a parent who was at the meeting to raise her concerns to the trustees and staff, and she left feeling no better about the situation than when she arrived.
“It’s the start of a process that is going to be difficult to deal with,” she said. “I don’t want to say that their decision’s already been made, but it feels that way.”
Perry chose Discovery Passage for her children’s education despite not even living in that school’s catchment area.
“I live all the way on the other side of town and chose to commute my kids to this school because it had smaller class sizes, and the school was an overall smaller environment, and I think it’s more beneficial for my children to be somewhere there are less than 100 other children. I think it creates a sense of community, which is getting lost in this day and age.”
Possibly the most frustrating thing for Perry and others in the crowd was the feeling that Discovery Passage wasn’t given a fair chance to succeed in the first place.
“It’s frustrating that the school isn’t in a position where it’s being allowed to grow,” Perry said.
Others raised the same concern, going so far as to ask the district how can they say they’re closing the school due to low enrolment while turning children away from registering at the school because it’s “full.”
Longridge confirmed that children have been turned away from registering at Discovery Passage, but says it’s because staffing and availability of space are two different issues.
The number of classrooms to be staffed at a facility is determined when the registration numbers come in, Longridge said, and unless enough additional students try to register to fill another classroom after staffing levels have been set, they just can’t justify spending the money to open another room.
“We can’t over-staff every school,” Longridge said. “That wouldn’t be fiscally responsible. We have to balance the overall staffing throughout the entire district. In some cases, a school can be ‘full’ because of the number of staff we’re able to have at that school. It would be extremely challenging to add another staff member when you’re two kids over or three kids over in an entire school, over several grades.”
Many said the low registration numbers over the years were also due to an assumption that the school would be closing before long, anyway.
“There are people who have chosen not to come to this school because of the rumour – that has been floating around since before my kids started coming here, so, for at least 12 years – that the school is going to close,” said Perry after the meeting, which echoed similar sentiments expressed by others at the forum earlier.
After all, why would parents start a kindergarten student in a school they’re just going to have to leave due to closure and add that stress into the child’s life, when they can just start the child at another school instead?
In the end, district trustees and staff went away with some things to consider, and a feeling for what people’s priorities are when it comes to the possible closure.
“School closures are very difficult, gut-wrenching decisions,” said trustee Richard Franklin while the roundtable discussions were taking place. “We know how important a school is to a community, and it’s great to see that these people care, obviously, about their community, and about the community’s kids.
“Tonight is to give the people a chance to speak and be heard by trustees who are really listening and are really interested in what they have to say. We’ll be taking into consideration the very thoughtful comments that people have been making here tonight. They’re coming up with great questions, and we have to be able to answer those questions.”
And maybe somewhere in those questions or suggestions will be something the board or senior staff hasn’t considered. Maybe there will be an alternative presented that makes more sense than the current proposal.
“These folks have a voice, and they may come up with some idea that we haven’t thought of, you know? That would be great,” Franklin said enthusiastically.
The next consultation meeting at Discovery Passage Elementary will be held March 1 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. There are meetings scheduled at Oyster River Elementary tonight (Wednesday, Jan. 27) and March 3 to discuss that school’s possible closure, as well.
An online feedback forum is also available through the district’s website (sd72.bc.ca) and they are accepting submissions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. They will also be taking feedback at their next two public meetings of the board of education, Feb. 2 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. The meetings are held at the School District 72 offices at 424 Pinecrest Road, beside Rod Brind’Amour Arena.