The Kootenay Lake school board has called an emergency meeting in Salmo to discuss the implications of last week’s surprise funding announcement for rural education. Trustees will meet tomorrow to decide which rural schools to apply for funding to save from closure — with Jewett and Winlaw being the two likeliest candidates.
Districts have been given until Friday to apply for the funds, with decisions from the government expected by June 30. The rushed funds mean SD8 can incorporate them into their facilities plan, which is scheduled to be finalized on July 5.
However, Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall is skeptical of the timing of the announcement, and concerned it may not be enough to save Winlaw and Jewett schools from closure.
“After starving education funding for years, and ignoring families, school districts and communities facing school closures, [Premier] Christy Clark has finally woken up and decided that she needs to appear to do something,” said Mungall.
“Despite a recent visit from the minister, our letters detailing the issue and information provided by the school district, the Ministry of Education still does not understand that six schools are facing closure — not two.”
She’s not surprised the $2.7 million infusion comes with an election less than a year away and feels the government’s announcement was bungled when the schools listed as eligible for funds in SD8 were Winlaw and Yahk — the latter of which has no students enrolled for next year. The announcement failed to mention Jewett, in Meadow Creek, which appears to meet the criteria for receiving funds.
“This is absolutely pathetic,” said Mungall. “My understanding is the ministry called the district asking about Yahk and Winlaw, but didn’t get the full details and completely forgot to ask about Jewett. They’re desperately scrambling because they feel the pressure on election year, but they didn’t do their homework.
“The election cycle should not be determining the investment in our education system.”
However, the ministry said the list of eligible schools it provided was based on an “initial scan of available data,” and other schools may be eligible. The fund is intended to cover operating costs that would have been saved through closures, including salaries and benefits, grounds and maintenance, transportation and utilities.
The ministry said districts can apply for capital funding through a separate fund. However, closures resulting from poor facility condition are ineligible for the rural education fund.
It remains unclear if the money will change the district’s attempts to address piling deferred maintenance costs. If not, the board might go ahead with closures despite the extra money on the table.
Superintendent Jeff Jones circulated a letter to Winlaw and Jewett parents last week expressing “cautious optimism.”
“It is important that you understand neither the trustees nor our administration had any advance knowledge of this announcement,” he wrote. “The schools listed in the announcement appeared to have been used as examples of the kinds of schools that might qualify for the fund. Clearly, it was not a complete or accurate list.”
He noted the announcement failed to mention how to access the money, the time-gap between application and receipt, or where exactly the cash will come from. This lack of information concerns Mungall.
“There is a lot of confusion, and a lot of missing information,” she said.
The announcement followed an appearance by Education Minister Mike Bernier in Nelson this year in which he wasn’t informed beforehand that the school he was touring, Trafalgar, was being considered for closure.
He met protestors outside who urged him to “fund rural schools!”
Jones said it’s premature to assume the funding announcement will result in Winlaw being taken off the chopping block, and said nothing will be confirmed until the board makes its final decision on July 5.
“The board is in the midst of a legal process that must see its completion,” he said.
“The truth is we continue to be absent any information regarding this funding. I concur, though, that the announcement and any new information received by the board will most likely have an impact on their debate and final decision.”
Mungall spoke with Jones and said she shares his frustration that the announcement was framed as an opportunity to share economic prosperity rather than as addressing students’ needs.
“So what? We can only keep our schools open if Christy Clark sells enough LNG? You have got to be kidding me.”
Mungall encouraged anyone concerned about school closures to attend the public meetings organized by the school board, and participate in the public consultation process that is underway.
“What kids and parents in this province need is secure, stable and adequate funding for our schools. But the premier seems to think she can continue underinvesting in our school system with campaign announcements. Not only that, after her failed education budget tore communities apart, she seems to think British Columbians will applaud her for it.”
SD8 trustees have been restricted in how and what they can say during the facilities planning process thus far, but will openly debate and speak their minds during the July 5 meeting.
The six schools currently being considered for closure in SD8 are Trafalgar, Jewett, Winlaw, Salmo elementary, Yahk and Creston education centre.