“Is that my knees creaking or is that the floors?”
That’s one of the questions education minister Mike Bernier asked principal Carol-Ann Leidloff while touring Trafalgar Middle School, which is nearly a century old and will be shuttered if SD8’s current facilities plan goes ahead.
And according to him, he knows how alarming that is.
“It’s important for me to get out around the entire province to see not only the schools, but also to meet with students and see what happens in the classrooms,” he told the Star, shortly after playing badminton, practicing the drums and touring the woodworking shop.
“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.”
To that end he met with the trustees and administrators, who filled him in on the logistics of their facilities plan, which is called N30. And though they’re frustrated with what they view as underfunding of the education system, which has forced them to make these tough decisions, Bernier said funding in the area is strong.
“We’ve increased $1.2 billion while going down 70,000 students,” Bernier said, noting SD8 students receive 20 per cent more than the provincial average per-student.
“This is a very emotional ministry because it touches everyone with a child. That’s why it’s important to have that dialogue. Most people I would argue don’t have all the information, so I’m more than willing to sit down and talk to people.”
When told by media that Trafalgar could potentially be closed, Bernier praised the institution’s “rich history”.
“I haven’t seen the request from them yet, but when I asked what they wanted to show me they said we’ve got Trafalgar, which is an amazing school, but it has challenges.”
Bernier noted there are $40 million worth of facilities grant opportunities for districts to apply for, and emphasized this facilities planning process is crucial to address growing deferred maintenance costs and the fact that many of B.C’s 1700 schools are “half-full”.
“This is always a concern, because we want to make sure we have the best education possible,” he said.
Bernier spent 45 minutes in the Trafalgar library with trustees and administration, who talked him through their draft facilities plan during a private session.
Their draft pitch to the minister includes shuttering a school in the Slocan Valley, moving new populations to Central and rebuilding South Nelson. Ultimately it means the ministry would need to invest $11.5 million to save $23 million, according to secretary-treasurer Kim Morris.
The plan would also inject $5.8 million into SD8’s operating fund.
After Bernier’s tour he greeted approximately 80 parents and children outside who were chanting “Fund our schools!” He gave a short speech, reassuring parents he understands their stress and he’s here to listen.
But he wasn’t at the following school board meeting 20 minutes later, where approximately 50 Kootenay parents packed into the space and spent over an hour passionately presenting to the board on behalf of their schools.
“This plan is not acceptable,” one parent said, while a Slocan Valley parent compared waiting for the news of closure to “waiting for execution.”
One parent confronted superintendent Jeff Jones, saying they were given a “false sense of security.”
“We were led to believe that if we work together the schools were going to stay open,” she said.
Parents put forward a request for more time to give feedback on the facilities plan.
They’ve got a petition with 146 signatures asking for a delay until Sept. 6. Meanwhile, they were throwing out ideas about how to up W.E Graham’s utilization — adding Wildflower, French immersion or StrongStart being some of the possibilities.
When told about the modified plan put forward by SD8 parents and the engagement coming from the community, Bernier was effusive.
“That engagement is amazing to watch. This can’t be a top-down decision. I encourage more people to get involved at the grassroots level.”
Following Bernier’s visit, the board voted unanimously to remind him of the dire straits their district is in financially and urge him to back their efforts in reconfiguring the district.
Trustee Sharon Nazaroff added that the letter should make it clear they appreciated his visit, which was the first by an education minister since Shirley Bond stopped at Rosemont and Mount Sentinel schools in 2007.
Parent Jessica Lunn, the mayor of Slocan, shared a PowerPoint presentation on the potential impact of closing their school. In big letters it read: “Ouch, this hurts!”
“We’re prospering. You need to invest in us and not shut us down,” she said, to huge applause.