Board delays decision on school closures until budget received

Mona Mattei
By Mona Mattei
March 4th, 2010

People from all across the Boundary region are telling the School District 51 that it is not acceptable to close the elementary school in Beaverdell. Over 50 people jammed into the board room for the School District 51 meeting last Tuesday, Mar. 2 to let the trustees know that the value of their elementary school, that hosts children in kindergarten through grade 4, is well beyond just education.

The proposal to start the process to close the Beaverdell and Midway Elementary Schools was the cause of the dissention. The crowd, made up largely of parents who travelled from Beaverdell, supporting parents from around the region and Grand Forks, as well as Regional Director Bill Baird and Grand Forks City Councillor Gene Robert, showed their strength in presentations and questions to the board.

Director Baird told the board that the area is seeing the biggest growth in the entire Regional District of Kootenay Boundary. “There’s a potential of Big White putting in a condo unit for their employees in Beaverdell. There’s more potential (for development) there than there is in Grand Forks or other areas,” said Baird. “I guarantee you there will be more than 11 kids there next year, and in the following years we could be up to 40 or 50 – we could have as many as Christina Lake. Closing a school in Beaverdell will kill the town. You’re doing more than closing a school, you’ll be closing a town. I think it’s very short-sighted, and I hope you think this out.”

Mother and Beaverdell resident, Tammy Shipton, provided the trustees with detailed documents about the problems associated with the closure of the elementary school including a breakdown of length of students’ day with bussing; income and expenses for the school; and a graph outlining student enrollment since 2000.

“In June of 2005, our school, with only 15 kids, had a surplus of $107,000. The next three years after that we had 18 – 20 kids. So it would only make sense to conclude that for those years that we had more than 15 kids we carried a surplus,” said Shipton. “Why is the board so quick to eliminate this school? I’m under the impression that this school has cost this district very little expense, so why close the doors?”

After the presentations from the delegation and comments from the audience, the board continued with their meeting agenda. Discussion was lively when they reached the agenda item to start the closure process for both Midway Elementary School, and Beaverdell Elementary.

Some trustees, and the superintendent of schools Michael Strukoff, felt that the time frame to take action was too short to delay the motion. Trustees argued that even if the motion went forward, the process calls for a consultation period of 60 days or more, and that the school may not close as a result of the process.

“I’m afraid if we don’t deal with this in a timely manner that we will be forced into a rushed situation. I sat across the table from the Minister of Education (when she visited) and she turned to Michael and said “you’re not going to like the budget”,” said Sally Garcelon, trustee. “I think that we should deal with it and not keep people waiting.”

Others felt that the decision was premature if in fact funding levels from the province remain the same or increase.

“I know it’s tight and I know it’s hard and it’s disruptive to teachers to get laid off and be on recall, but that’s what we do with all of our schools because we really don’t know until September how many students we’re going to have,” said Vicki Gee, trustee. “I think that this is premature given that the budget is coming down imminently, and, also, it could be better news than what we think. Are we going to keep bringing this up? It’s premature to act on Mar. 2 when we’re going to have a lot more information in just a couple of weeks.”

The BC Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) does not see hope for the budget, however, saying that the BC Liberals’ latest budget will lead to more instability and uncertainty for schools as downloaded costs continue to outpace government funding, BCTF President Irene Lanzinger said.

“The government wants British Columbians to believe they are protecting education, but students, parents, and teachers should brace for more cuts,” said Lanzinger. “More schools will close, there will be more overcrowded classes, and teachers will be laid off. The government continues to be in complete denial about its role in education cuts.”

The government claims that there’s enough funding to meet the needs of B.C.’s public education system, but the small amount of new funding is far exceeded by rising costs according to the BCTF. The government is asking school districts to use the small funding lift to fund salary increases and full-day kindergarten. However, there is no new funding to deal with rising transportation and heating costs. The government also refused to fund medical services plan and pension increases for staff.

“The math just doesn’t add up,” said Lanzinger. “The government is playing a shell game and it is B.C.’s students who are going to lose.”

Despite the pressure that the district will face in any delay of the process, including possible notification of layoffs for teachers, Trustee Ken Harshenin proposed a compromise that would enable the board to wait until the provincial budgets for the school district are received before they proceed.

The board agreed to call a special meeting as soon as the school’s funding from the provincial budget is available and will notify parents prior to the meeting. The motion to proceed with the school closures will be put forward if necessary at that meeting.

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