2016’s Top Stories #1: SD8 votes to close four schools

Long-term facilities plan was the source of plentiful controversy this year.

SD8 voted to close Trafalgar Middle School this year.

Goodbye Trafalgar.

During the ambitious, multi-year facilities planning process the Kootenay Lake school board worked its way through this year, trustees and staff invited concerned parents to engage in the process. And that’s exactly what they did, sometimes with overwhelming results.

First the board put forward six schools for potential closure: Trafalgar, Salmo Elementary, Winlaw, Jewett, Creston Education Centre and Yahk. But right away they were met with vehement opposition in the Slocan Valley and elsewhere, faced with gymnasiums packed full of sign-waving education advocates.

One of the residents who spoke during a meeting in May was Winlaw Elementary Grade 5 student Daniel Sullivan, who compared the potential closure of his school to destroying a spiderweb.

“The spiderweb has many threads that support it, and by closing the school you break one of those threads and affect all the other ones,” Sullivan said, to applause from the nearly 400 people packed into the W.E Graham gymnasium in Slocan.

“I really love Winlaw Elementary and I’ve enjoyed my experiences there. Please don’t close it.”

Minister Mike Bernier toured the district during the process, swinging by Trafalgar Middle School, but his staff failed to inform him beforehand that it was being considered for closure.

“Is that my knees creaking or is that the floors?” he joked.

While in town he told reporters the school closures were necessary, but he didn’t want to make any decisions without seeing what was happening on the ground.

“Every district in the province, and there’s 60 of them, is different with unique challenges and stories to tell,” Bernier said, noting he grew up in rural BC and understands rural education intimately. “I’m not making decisions in Victoria without understanding what’s going on in the province.”

Ultimately Winlaw was rescued, along with Jewett, by a last-minute rural school funding announcement that took them off the chopping block. But the plan also evolved in idiosyncratic ways, most notably with Wildflower proposing an amendment to the plan that was ultimately approved.

“The parents at Wildflower and South Nelson recognize the board has these needs to address,” parent Jay Blackmore told the Star. “What we’re proposing is rather than dictating a certain number of South Nelson and Rosemont kids coming to Central to create a separate elementary stream, we’ll expand Wildflower classes and offer up room to both.”

Other parts of the plan, such as closing Trafalgar, were painful but considered a crucial part of addressing the district’s capacity issues and deferred maintenance costs.

“I wince every time I think about closing Trafalgar,” trustee Bill Maslechko told those present. “It’s agony but I still think it’s the right thing to do.”

And the board is tentatively optimistic about how things turned out during their final vote in July. Once the board voted to close the four schools they went on to debate minor amendments before voting on the entirety of the plan. It passed without any opposition.

When all the voting was done, board chair Lenora Trenaman addressed those remaining in the bleachers.

“This has been a very fulfilling process, but it’s also been very taxing,” said Trenaman. “Thank you for all your support.”

But some are unhappy with the result, and many lay the blame at the feet of Premier Christy Clark. One particular Slocan Valley resident, Dr. Marcia Braundy, has repeatedly made reference to the Prosperity Fund the Liberal government is apparently sitting on.

“Prosperity is when you educate the young people of this province,” she said.

“I picture it like this: SD8 cowering with hat in hand, reaching out to ask the government ‘please sir, can we have some more?’”

 

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