Winlaw elementary appears to be saved from impending closure thanks to the introduction of a $2.7 million rural education enhancement fund announced Wednesday, but how that will affect other SD8 schools such as Jewett remains to be seen.
“Ironically I learned about this announcement through the media en route to another consideration of closure consultation meeting,” board chair Lenora Trenaman told the Star Thursday morning.
“Our staff haven’t had a chance to digest or dig into what this means. Of course any money, especially when it comes to supporting schools such as Winlaw, would be more than welcome.”
But she wonders about the timing.
“We’ve been asking for funding support for years and they’ve been telling us there’s no money available for the districts. We recently found out we can retain our administrative savings, then shortly after we found out it’s ongoing. These are welcome announcements, but why are they forcing us into these confrontations first?”
Put another way by superintendent Jeff Jones: “Where is this money coming from, and how is it going to further affect our decision-making down the road?”
The ministry seems to have responded to their district’s plight after a series of planning meetings drew hundreds to discuss the potential closure of six SD8 schools. Both Jones and Trenaman are pleased the government seems to have acknowledged the unique needs of rural schools, and now that Winlaw appears to be off the chopping block, they’re feeling cautiously optimistic.
However, they’re still waiting for more information, with the biggest question being whether Jewett can apply for the same protection as Winlaw.
“It’s interesting that the announcement was framed through the lens of sharing economic prosperity and not through the lens of properly funding public education and meeting the needs of our students,” Jones said. “Also, the announcement makes reference to operating costs. We’d be interested to see whether they’re planning to address our mounting deferred maintenance costs as well.”
Contacted by the Star on Thursday, the Ministry of Education said districts will be allowed to choose which schools receive the newly announced funds, but whether Jewett would be eligible remained unclear.
According to the government’s announcement, districts will be allowed to apply for provincial funds with an estimate of savings they would realize from closing a rural school. That amount would be supplied by the province.
These funds are available to districts in rural communities outside the Lower Mainland, Greater Victoria and Kelowna areas where the closure would eliminate specific grades within the community. Closures due to facility condition or extreme enrolment decline aren’t included.
Jewett appears to meet the criteria for funding, but a news release this week only named Winlaw and Yahk. The latter school is not expected to have any students next year.
In a statement provided to the Star, the Ministry of Education said decision-making will be done by the district.
“The schools listed as eligible are based on the information in the Ministry’s system at the time of the announcement. It’s up to school districts if they want to apply for the funding to keep a school open – whether it’s on the list we provided or not. We will work with any district to determine eligibility for any school,” the statement reads.
Jones said it would “not be unrealistic” to assume the announcement will have an effect on the final facilities planning decision scheduled to be made at a meeting on July 5.