The Kootenay Lake school district voted in favour of moving forward with the closure of four SD8 schools on Tuesday evening: Salmo Elementary, Yahk, Creston Education Centre and Trafalgar.
Meanwhile they passed motions to accept rural education funds for Winlaw and Jewett, a move that defers their impending closures.
“School closure is the last discussion any trustee wants to contemplate,” board chair Lenora Trenaman told the approximately 60 residents in attendance in the L.V. Rogers gymnasium.
“But it’s our duty to plan for the future.”
Over the course of the three-hour meeting, the board discussed each of the six schools being considered for closure separately, leaving the two most contentious conversations until last.
The first four passed first and second reading with little fanfare, though Nelson’s situation inspired some dialogue.
“There are too many ifs,” trustee Bill Maslechko said, going on to abstain from the Nelson vote. But Curtis Bendig said the closure of Trafalgar is an uncontroversial move that’s supported by the community and crucial to address its $11 million in deferred maintenance costs.
“As it stands Trafalgar is a significant financial liability,” he said. “But there’s no intention of closing Trafalgar until the rest of the family (of schools) is ready.”
The board was careful to make clear that the school closures being considered are contingent on the government’s support of the remainder of their plan, which will be finalized next week.
In Salmo that means the elementary school and high school will be amalgamated, while elsewhere schools will require funds to be rebuilt or renovated. Locally Wildflower has been approved to expand while Central will host the Homelinks, REACH, French immersion and DESK programs. South Nelson Elementary will be rebuilt.
Maslechko brought forward concerns about L.V. Rogers’ capacity, as the plan contemplates introducing an additional grade to the high school, but his feelings weren’t shared by Superintendent Jeff Jones or Bendig.
“Will things fit? Yes. Will it look the same? No,” said Bendig, noting that “my kids will attend these schools, my neighbours’ kids will.”
And though the board is welcoming the creation of the rural education enhancement fund (REEF) from the provincial government, which last week identified Winlaw and Jewett as recipients, they believe there’s still a long way to go to address the district’s looming issues.
“This battle isn’t over,” said Bendig, who told the crowd the contentious two-year facilities planning process has brought him to tears on multiple occasions.
“I’m under no illusion that it will be easy to get that capital funding. This will be a long road, but it’s one I’m interested in traveling down.”
Many of the trustees expressed skepticism about the government’s ongoing financial support, including Trenaman.
“I’m going to support this resolution but I don’t think it’s a long-term sustainable fix for the Slocan Valley…How can we trust this funding is going to be ongoing?”
She wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Dr. Marcia Braundy told the board she believes the funding was “a pittance” and “an insult from the government.”
“It was wrong of the province to act in this way,” she said. “There’s a very large prosperity fund in this government’s back pocket, but prosperity is when you educate the young people of this province.”
And the situation is far from over, trustees said.
“This will come up again. That’s the sad thing,” trustee Bob Wright said about the Slocan Valley. He was seconded by Huscroft, who called the REEF funding “a kneejerk reaction”.
“Proper funding of education should be important every year, not just pre-campaign,” Huscroft said. “Funding based on re-funding seems like an oxymoron.”
Winlaw advocates were out in force, and crowded the entrance to the high school with the signs that were formerly planted along the roadsides in the Slocan Valley.
“Winlaw School supports vulnerable children and families. Winlaw supports students that would be otherwise be homeschooled,” said trustee Sharon Nazaroff in an impassioned speech.
“The community has provided an abundance of feedback that overwhelmingly supports keeping Winlaw open…Our district has committed to a poverty reduction strategy. This is how we do it: by keeping Winlaw open.”
That drew applause.
Bendig told the crowd the REEF funding “isn’t a silver bullet” but will “buy the board time” to come up with longer term solutions.
Parents and residents were given an opportunity to speak at the end of the evening, which could not be video-conferenced due to technological trouble at the high school. One mother told the board she travelled over 200 kilometres to be present, and she felt it was “unacceptable” to hold such an important meeting without “including everyone in the district”.
“I think the problem is in Victoria,” said Area H director Walter Popoff, who encouraged everyone present to advocate on behalf of rural schools. He’s frustrated that the Slocan Valley has faced potential closures repeatedly.
“Closing a remote school is almost like closing a community down,” he said.
The district’s facilities plan will be finalized at a July 12 meeting at L.V. Rogers.