Winlaw parents are threatening to take the Kootenay Lake school board to court over the potential closure of their community’s elementary school, and announced Monday they’ve started the Winlaw School Legal Defense Fund.
“Never in the history of this province has a full rural school ever been closed. This is unprecedented,” said presenter Joanne Ellis, former school coordinator for W.E. Graham, who was granted half an hour to speak. She introduced the idea of taking legal action.
Parents believe the facilities planning process being followed by SD8 doesn’t make sense and is motivated by politics. One presenter, Jerome Liborion, said the scoring system used has serious flaws — an opinion he said was seconded by a Newfoundland professor with a doctorate in social research.
“Decisions made in good faith by trustees are often really political,” said Liborion.
Other professionals, including a civil engineer, also decried the system. This process has led some, including DPAC chair Sheri Walsh, to postulate that trustees are simply “following the direction of staff.”
Board chair: ‘We’re not worried’
Despite the ongoing controversy swirling around Winlaw’s potential closure, which has received plentiful media attention and attracted hundreds to their meetings, board chair Lenora Trenaman isn’t concerned about legal threats.
“If the community believes they have a course of action they can pursue towards the district or the board, they can check into that,” she said. “But the board has had counsel from two lawyers, and we’re not worried.”
She expressed faith in their process, which is scheduled to be voted on and finalized at a meeting on July 5.
“Folks came out to support their schools and told trustees what they wanted us to hear. They had well-organized, well-articulated presentations and now it will be up to trustees to determine what we can take from the information we have to be considered.”
Trenaman said they anticipated emotions would run high as they contemplate closing six schools in the district: Winlaw, Salmo Elementary, Jewett, Trafalgar, Creston Education Centre and Yahk. And she was grateful that the approximately 350 parents who gathered in the Winlaw gym Monday evening maintained a respectful tone.
That said, the six scheduled presenters had plenty to say. The board decided to forego their own presentation — in which they would’ve answered questions and shared new information they’ve gleaned — to give the community more time to speak.
Former Nelson-Creston MLA Corky Evans questioned how they could consider the “unprecedented” move of closing a well-utilized, growing school.
“It makes me wonder what whoever is advising you is thinking,” he said. “After you retire, you want to look back and hopefully be thanked for your accomplishments, not confronted by your own personal regret from not standing up when you could have.”
He called Winlaw’s potential closure “a mistake you haven’t made yet.”
‘Kids want a school in Winlaw, not just adults’
Grade 4 student Beatrix Kelly (above) shared her enthusiasm for her school with the board, noting they have a band, a garden project, a bee hive, Christmas concerts and talent shows.
“I think Winlaw deserves to have a school. I live close to this school so I can bike and walk to school. It’s helpful because I don’t have to drive and I get more exercise. I think Winlaw school is great because it has good teachers and with good teachers kids like me can learn more. And I wanted you to know that kids want a school in Winlaw, not just adults.”
Some adults who spoke, both during the presentations and during the following open mic session, warned the board the potential closure could have devastating consequences. Real estate agent Kevin Sutherland, a long-time resident, said property values will drop 10 per cent the moment the school is removed from the neighbourhood.
“That could cost the community anywhere from $12 to $24 million right off the boat. More could be lost should you decide to sell your property — if you actually can!”
The board also heard from former trustee Penny Tees, who has passionately presented on behalf of Winlaw to the board on multiple occasions.
“When you can’t trust your trustees to speak, it says much about the legal counsel they have been given,” she said.
Five of the nine trustees were present for the meeting, which was recorded. Trenaman said the audio of the meeting has been provided to the missing trustees.
“There’s no way for me to predict what has or hasn’t influenced the board, but I can say that as always, the trustees were listening.”