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COLUMN: Government makes trustees’ jobs even harder

As the Kootenay Lake district nears a decision on closing six schools, I thought about how many I’ve seen shuttered since 1998.
Winlaw elementary is one of six schools the Kootenay Lake district is thinking about closing. At least 17 other local schools have closed since 1998

There’s no doubt about it: school closures stink.

As the Kootenay Lake district nears a decision on closing six schools, I thought about how many I’ve seen shuttered since 1998 in four local districts, mainly due to declining enrollment. The list came to 17, and I’ve probably forgotten a few.

• In Kootenay Lake: A.I. Collinson (now L’école des Sentiers-alpins), Gordon Sargent (now a daycare), and Central (now home to a number of different programs).

• In Kootenay-Columbia: Sunningdale, Central, Montrose, Beaver Valley middle, Kinnaird middle, Valley Vista, Tarrys, Cooke Ave., MacLean, Trail middle (since reopened as the Kootenay-Columbia Learning Centre), and Blueberry Creek (although it remains open as a community resource).

• In Arrow Lakes: Fauquier (now a library and community centre), Glenbank, and Burton (which has since reopened one day a week as Burton Academy School).

• In Boundary: none, because the district switched to a four-day week in 2002. You don’t hear much about it anymore — I had to check that they still use that schedule. I’m surprised more districts haven’t adopted it.

While a community might eventually get over a school closure, it can nevertheless leave a gaping hole. I wince every time I drive by the former Tarrys school site, where my father taught for 15 years, and think about how much better it used to be. (After it closed, the school was sold, then burned down. Now there are graffiti-covered trailers on the site and the former field and playground are overgrown. It’s an eyesore.)

The other thing that occurs to me is what a difficult job school trustees have and how government doesn’t make it any easier. Municipalities sometimes grouse about serving at the pleasure of the province, but it’s nothing compared to what school boards put up with.

They have little control over their revenue or expenses. About 90 per cent of the latter are tied up in salaries negotiated provincially. The province also tells them how much funding they get and then leaves them to wrestle with the budget and take any flak. If they balk at this, they can be fired.

(A news release this month announcing the sacking of the North Okanagan-Shuswap board said it was “only” the ninth time a board has been dismissed in BC since 1965. How many times has the government fired a municipal council? It happened in Dawson City in 2004, but I don’t know that it has ever occurred in BC — of if it’s even possible.)

Government has a very cavalier attitude toward school boards (or boards of education, as they were rebranded a few years ago), judging from recent events.

Facing a tremendous outcry over school closures around the province, the Ministry of Education announced districts could keep administrative savings they’d been ordered to find. How generous. Liberal MLAs then encouraged boards in their ridings to use the money to save schools on the chopping block, but trustees weren’t impressed, saying the one-time cash infusion would hardly keep any school operating for long.

So a few weeks later, more money was somehow found to keep rural schools open. The criteria seemed explicitly designed to save those schools whose impending closure generated the greatest controversy. Districts had one week to apply, with decisions to follow a week later. (Funny how quickly government can move when it wants to.)

Clearly the ministry is making this up as they go, trying to get unhappy parents off their backs. While trustees welcome the funding, it’s incredibly unfair of government to swoop in at the last minute and pass themselves off as white knights rescuing rural schools.

Boards have to take broader views, both district-wide and longer term. Despite the new money, it might not be the smartest decision to preserve a particular school at the expense of the larger picture. Yet trustees may face condemnation if they don’t eagerly accept the cash.

All of which brings me to this question: when and why did boards lose their taxing authority? I don’t know, but it appears to have been in the 1980s. Why can’t local trustees be trusted to decide what constituents are willing to pay for education? If voters are unhappy with their tax burden, they can elect a different board.

Some suggest that given their diminishing role, school boards should be abolished. I disagree. There is still great value in having local control and direct accountability, even if it’s hamstrung by another level of government controlling the purse strings.

FERRY TALES: There are legitimate reasons to move the Balfour ferry terminal to Queens Bay and other equally legitimate reasons to leave it where it is.

I’m not as cynical as those who believe the decision to move it has already been made. While the consultation period is brief, there is no mistaking the feeling on the west side of Kootenay Lake. Although a terminal in Queens Bay would be advantageous to East Shore residents, but I’d be surprised if the Ministry of Transportation pushes ahead with it.

Don’t underestimate the power of public pressure. When the government tried to slap tolls on the same ferry and others in 2002, it backed off in the face of ferocious opposition. A revolt over the harmonized sales tax led to the premier’s resignation, a referendum, and the tax being scrapped.

Recently, South Slocan residents told the ministry a pedestrian/bike tunnel is vital when a highway bridge is filled in. They replied: heard you loud and clear. Tunnel it is.

When parents and community members around the province railed against school closures, the Ministry of Education, as mentioned above, found money to help save them.

The decision on the ferry terminal, I expect, will also follow the path of least resistance.

CEDAR COFFIN: Meadow Creek Cedar’s lumber reman and planer mill equipment were auctioned off last week, spelling the sad end to what was once the Lardeau Valley’s largest employer.

The mill’s fate was already pretty much sealed by a fire that destroyed the main building in November 2014, but there remained hope it might be rebuilt. The sale of the company’s timber license to Canfor extinguished those dreams, and the equipment auction was the final nail in the coffin.

LAST GASP DEPARTMENT: The first column you write is your salutatory. The last one is your valedictory. This is my valedictory.

I’m leaving the Nelson Star next week to try to replace the irreplaceable Glenn Hicks at 103.5 Juice FM. However, I’ll keep up my weekly place name series in the West Kootenay Advertiser (I should reach the Zs in early 2018) and perhaps contribute the occasional historical feature.

Community newspapering is interesting in that some people think we should be relentlessly critical of everything and everyone, while others figure we should fill our pages exclusively with cheque presentations and puppy photos. But I’ve always strived for something in between.

Thanks to my excellent colleagues, including current newsroom staff Will Johnson, Tyler Harper, Bill Metcalfe, and Jennifer Cowan; to Nelson city council members for almost always getting their columns in on time; to the prolific Anne DeGrace, our other regular contributors, and most of all to Star readers.