It was standing room only in the public gallery at the Kootenay Lake School District (SD8)’s final board meeting before summer break.
More than 50 teachers and parents showed up to speak or lend their support during the public comment period and about 20 more attended by video conference from the Creston satellite office.
It took two hours for the board to hear all the comments, each punctuated by applause from the gallery. Speakers were distressed by the impact of the 2012-13 district budget the board approved in May.
The budget called for the reduction of 19 full-time-equivalent teaching positions, closing of district resource centres in Nelson and Creston, and implementing a fee for students riding school busses outside their catchment area (see related story on Page 9).
Keith Todd, music teacher at Trafalgar Middle School, came out to complain for the first time in his 23 year teaching career. While he hadn’t personally received a layoff notice, he said the cuts have created a climate of fear, anger and mistrust in his school.
“I would conservatively estimate at Trafalgar that over half the staff have either experienced a layoff notice, a forced transfer, a forced reassignment within the school, a forced reduction in assignment with a reduction in salary, or are experiencing a great deal of anxiety over the possibility of being bumped or transfered,” Todd said.
Throughout the district, 36 teachers received layoff notice last month, including 23 in Nelson. Superintendent Jeff Jones said 11 of the notices have since been rescinded, as the reductions were achieved through attrition. Longtime teachers were given the option to use their seniority to bump a teacher junior to them and take over their position.
Several speakers called the cuts excessive, citing a provincial report on school headcounts, which projected a mere 15 student decline in enrolment between this school year and next.
But Jones said district projections, based on the number of children in strong start pre-school programs versus the number of students graduating high school, estimated there would be 90 fewer students in SD8 next year.
Board chair Mel Joy defended the budget as forward thinking, given the school district is losing its provincial funding protection.
“We understand and feel your frustrations,” she told a crowd that shouted and laughed as she spoke. “I know these changes will be felt especially in small rural schools. We’re trying to do our best wit the funding we have.”
She pointed out that there are no school closures and no program cuts.
Several residents of Slocan vented about losing their Kindergarden teacher at W.E. Graham Community School, which will leave the lone primary teacher with a classroom of students from K to Grade 5.
L.V. Rogers Secondary School Grade 11 student Chelsea Chirico said she’s struggled in large classrooms and fears that becoming the norm.
“There’s less opportunity to learn in large classrooms. The teacher doesn’t always have time to help you,” she said. “For somebody at a lower level (of learning) it’s hard to keep up when you have to figure things out for yourself.”
Many speakers suggested the cuts would lead to lower graduation rates and more families choosing homeschooling or private school for their children.
Rick Lingard, a music and science teacher for 14 years at Mount Sentinel Secondary School, called on the board to challenge the budget.
“Why is Cowichan (Valley School District) standing up to this government, while this board is silent?” he asked, referring the board of trustees who risk being fired for approving deficit budget earlier this year.
Other speakers asked that the budget process be reopened to give the board more time to consider other options.
During the regular meeting, two motions were brought forward to reverse some unpopular budget decisions, but both failed.
A motion to keep the district resource centre open, made by Slocan Valley trustee Barbara Lindsey, couldn’t find a seconder. And a motion to keep school busses free for out of catchment students, made by Crawford Bay trustee Lenora Trenaman who is vice chair of the board, narrowly failed with a 5-4 vote against it.
Chair Joy said it was too late to make changes to the budget now.
“When the majority of trustees vote for a decision, it’s made,” she said. “This is the hardest budget I’ve ever been a part of. There isn’t a decision we make at this table that doesn’t affect somebody in the district, but we still have to make those hard choices.”