Mike Bernier blinked.
We were standing in the hallway just outside Trafalgar Middle School’s library, a crowd of journalists scrumming the education minister after spending 45 minutes following him from one photo op to the next: he play-pounded the drums in the band room, swung his badminton racket in the gymnasium and peeked over students’ shoulders while they worked on their class assignments.
But when it came time to talk about the potential closure of the school he was standing in as part of the long-term facilities planning process SD8 has been engaged in for the past two years, it became apparent he had no idea Trafalgar was one of the schools potentially on the chopping block.
I couldn’t believe it.
Nobody had thought to casually mention it to him, perhaps during the commute? Did he not have a staff who could brief him?
Sure: he was about to be filled in by the school board, only moments later, but how could he have possibly missed this? For one thing, we’d already put the news on the front page of our newspaper.
“Every district in the entire province, we have 60 of them, is different and all of them have unique and exciting stories to tell,” he said. “I thought it was important to get out of Victoria and see what’s happening in the classrooms.”
But though he told us he was there to “dialogue”, when he met the throng of protesters gathered at the school’s entrance he engaged long enough with a sign-holding kid to get a photo op, threw out a handful of platitudes, then climbed into his car and drove away to his next stop — not bothering to come to the school board meeting that was starting twenty minutes later.
“Fund our rural schools!” the parents screamed at his car as he drove away.
A taxing, stressful multi-year process
A few weeks after Bernier’s appearance, I drove out to W.E. Graham in Slocan for a community consultation meeting that promised controversy — the highway en route was lined with signs urging commuters to protest the potential closure of Winlaw, and the event attracted local political figures such as Corky Evans, Walter Popoff and Jessica Lunn.
I pulled into town over an hour early, so I parked beside the empty lot that used to house the Springer Creek Forest Products mill and listened to my audiobook, looking at the derelict equipment overgrown with scrubgrass. It was a peaceful afternoon, sunny, and I was pondering taking some photos when I saw a solitary woman emerge from the trees in the distance.
As she drew nearer I saw that it was the board chair, Lenora Trenaman, going for a long solo-stroll to clear her mind before being met with the coming onslaught. Hundreds of parents would ultimately pack into W.E. Graham’s gymnasium, and they were Slocan Valley-style incensed.
I couldn’t blame her for feeling a little stressed, and when she swung by my car to chat I could see her dread in the way she carefully crafted her words, her body tense. She seemed determined to face an unpleasant task, like cleaning up a particularly foul men’s nightclub washroom.
Over the course of the last six months I’ve been covering the facilities planning process, I’ve seen Trenaman and many of the trustees in tears multiple times. And the government hasn’t made it any easier, especially when they surprise-sprung mysterious funds on them at the last minute — a move that’s been read as a political ploy in the lead-up to the election.
It was also a good way to make the school board look like the bad guys while foiling their attempts to address piling deferred maintenance costs and configuration issues in the Slocan Valley. Of course everyone’s happy the schools aren’t closing, but the haphazard way the provincial government has engaged in this process has exposed its long-term institutional neglect.
“These are welcome announcements,” Trenaman told me. “But why are they forcing us into these confrontations first?”
Put another way by trustee Curtis Bendig: “This is certainly very frustrating that in order to get attention for our schools we need to consider them for closure.”
‘It’s time to do your homework’
During SD8’s consultation process the parents were encouraged to engage in every step along the way — something they did with vigour, offering tweaks to Nelson scenarios and loudly decrying the coming closures.
The parents met with trustees, put together PowerPoint presentations, created colourful signs and brought their kids along to school board meetings to deliver scripted speeches. They organized on Facebook, they flooded on to Twitter, they panic-waved their arms and shouted.
But as the process progressed, while amendments were being proposed and tweaks added, things seemed to get progressively esoteric. Confused parents would ask questions only to find they’d only already been answered at an earlier meeting — how could they’ve missed it?
A few weeks ago, after returning from a particularly heated meeting in the L.V. Rogers gymnasium, I turned to my editor and confessed that I was still confused about some of the details of what exactly had just happened. Here I was, a professional being paid to attend hours upon hours of these meetings, and I still couldn’t decipher some of the specifics.
“How can they possibly expect parents to keep up?” I asked my editor.
The obvious answer: they can’t.
Saying goodbye to Yahk, Salmo, Creston and Trafalgar
The end result of this process is that SD8 will say goodbye to four of our communities’ schools: Yahk, Salmo, Creston and Trafalgar—the last of which will end the era of middle school education locally.
Salmo Elementary’s amalgamation with the high schools was uncontroversial, and Yahk’s closure was inevitable with its lack of students, but a number of concerns have been raised about the implications of Creston and Trafalgar’s closure. The controversy swirling around this process will not be going away anytime soon.
And here’s the most important thing to realize: this entire plan relies on the provincial government coming up with a significant cash infusion for renovations and rebuilds — something that’s far shy from certain and much closer to unlikely. And if the pittance they’ve come up with so far is any indication, our district’s chronic underfunding issues are far from over.
One particular Slocan Valley resident, Dr. Marcia Brandy, has repeatedly made reference to the Prosperity Fund the Liberal government is apparently sitting on. Why can’t that go to properly funding our schools, she asked.
“Prosperity is when you educate the young people of this province,” she said.
I picture it like this: SD8 cowering with hat in hand, reaching out to ask the government “please sir, can we have some more?”
What are the chances, you figure, that this time they’ll listen?