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Okanagan Skaha closing three schools

Bruce Johnson, an SD67 school trustee and retired principal, refused to vote in favour of closing any schools during a lengthy board meeting Wendesday - Steve Kidd/Western News
Bruce Johnson, an SD67 school trustee and retired principal, refused to vote in favour of closing any schools during a lengthy board meeting Wendesday
— image credit: Steve Kidd/Western News

It was an emotional meeting as the Okanagan Skaha School Board deliberated on which schools they should close.

In the end, three schools were chosen. Trout Creek Elementary in Summerland, along with Westbench Elementary and McNicoll Park Middle School in Penticton will close on July 1, 2016, the start of the school district’s next budget period.

The school district has faced budget shortfalls for several years and expects to see them for some years into the future until enrolment begins to climb again. In this case, the district is expecting to see a $1.025 million shortfall next year.

Expecting a full house, the board moved this meeting to a larger hall. They weren’t disappointed, as the audience began filing into the building an hour before the scheduled start of the meeting. By 7 p.m., it was standing room only with about 200 people present.

Trustee Bruce Johnson, a former principal, was the first to speak, in favour of the status quo.

He called the last three years some of the most challenging in education in B.C. but said the board had so far managed to meet their goals, and should fight to continue to do so.

“I have been involved with this school district for a long time. I don’t think things are broken,” said Johnson. He noted that mistakes have been made during the closure process and suggested that the board should take more time, and delay their decision to the next budget process.

”Most importantly, we will do the job we were elected to do, working together for student success,” said Johnson.

Trustee Bill Bidlake, also a former principal, said that while the board was doing a good job, the alternative to school closures was to start cutting staff positions.

”We are not in bad tack, but we have to look at some closures tonight,” said Bidlake, which board chair Linda van Alphen was in agreement with.

“Having been a trustee for 14 years, I know there is nothing left to pick at,” said van Alphen.

Option C, which would have seen the two Penticton high schools repurposed also met with opposition.

“I do believe there should be a two high school system in Penticton,” said van Alphen, saying that it could come back to the table should more need to be done.

Other trustees suggested repurposing the schools would be a large and expensive job, and that keeping smaller school populations was beneficial for students.

Option D, reconfiguring age groups at various schools and closing Carmi, Parkway, and West Bench Elementary Schools met with less strident opposition.

Van Alphen said she found parts of Option D attractive but did not want to see Penticton left with a single high school; Summerland Secondary being physically too separate to allow for student choice.

Another option, which would have seen Princess Margaret converted to a middle school, Skaha Lake reduced to elementary school, and Pen High made into a dual campus high school, joining with KVR middle school.

Again the single high school model met with opposition, along with concerns over the effectiveness of a dual campus model.

A similar option, which would have seen Princess Margaret also made a dual campus middle school was opposed for similar reasons.

“Of H(a) and H(b), this was the far better model. I did like it, but I am voting against the motion,” said Van Alphen. “It looks like there is only one high school.”

Closing Giant’s Head Elementary in Summerland, while reconfiguring age ranges at other Summerland schools was also not acceptable.

Reasons included the cost of the retrofit, and pushing the capacity of the schools in the municipality.

The second Summerland-oriented option, which would have involved closing Trout Creek Elementary, did get some support, starting with Summerland trustee Janet Planiden.

”I feel that option I is the better option for Summerland,” said Planiden. She believed concentrating students in a central location would be beneficial.

”I think everything is in walking distance,” said Planiden, listing facilities like schools, libraries, galleries.

”I think that is a rare occurrence in a community.”

Trustees Shelley Clarke and Barb Sheppard also supported option I.

BIdlake opposed the option, saying it added to the list late in the game though it might be a consideration for the future.

“I have struggled with these options,” said Van Alphen, who said something had to be done in the area.

”We are down to 75 per cent capacity. There are four schools in Summerland. That would tell anyone that one needs to close,” said van Alphen. “There is nothing that says to me that this isn’t the best option for Summerland.”

No one can convince me that closing this school is a good thing for our communities. I think this would be a very bad mistake,” said trustee Johnson, closing the debate. “This board, financially, is in excellent shape. I don’t think this is the year to close any schools.”

Option A, closing McNicoll Park Middle School also received support from many of the trustees

”We have too much capacity for middle schools in Penticton,” said Clarke, while van Alphen repeated that not closing some schools would mean cuts in other areas.

”We are at a stage now, where we don’t want to make any more cuts,” said Van Alphen, adding that this process was the end result of a decade of cuts.

The last time the school board was faced with such a decision was almost 15 years ago, when Nkwala School, next to McNicoll Park Middle School was closed. It was later leased to the province’s French school district and reopened as Ecolé Entre Lacs.

The board of education sat down at a special meeting tonight with a bigger decision in front of them, and options ranging from the status quo to closing elementary and middle schools while reconfiguring Penticton and Princess Margaret Secondary schools into large high and middle school campuses.

Bidlake, who spent a third of my career at McNicoll Park and started his teaching career there, showed his emotion as he agreed that school should be closed.

Closing Westbench also brought emotional responses from some of the trustees.

”Aside from the McNicoll decision, I think this was my second most difficult,” said Sheppard, who suggested the school might find a better use as a community Centre.

Bidlake, however, said it was no struggle for him.

“I believe rural schools are very important,” said Bidlake.

Johnson spoke against the closure of Westbench, saying that two closures are enough.

“We will be fine for now,” said Johnson, adding that the board should now stop looking at money and focus on the students and families at the school.

The final option, converting Carmi Elementary to an early French immersion school was opposed by the board.

Sheppard spoke first, saying that it was too expensive an option at this time.

“We have not had any extra money to put towards something like this,” said Van Alphen. “I think we should table this and wait till we have more funds.”

Tina Martin spoke from the audience, requesting the board reconsider closing Trout Creek Elementary, based on the extent of its effects on the community, both in Trout Creek and the overall Summerland Community.

“You are not doing the right thing,” she said.

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