Okanagan Skaha School Board hears offers for closed schools

Groups are eager to take over schools in Penticton should they be closed

Trustee Julie Planiden and School Board Chair Linda Van Alphen go over their notes as they listen to input public input about future uses of closed schools.

If schools have to close in the Okanagan-Skaha School District, there are groups eager to take over some of the facilities.

According to information given at a public meeting Monday, offers were made for McNicoll Park Middle School as well as Carmi and Westbench Elementary Schools.

School District 93, which operates all French language schools in the province including École Entre-lacs, has put an offer on the table to lease the neighbouring McNicoll Park school.

“In addition to being much bigger than the Nkwala school facility, McNicoll Park Middle is also in better condition and more attractive,” wrote Sylvain Allison, secretary-treasurer for the Conseil Scolaire Francophone. “It would allow the Conseil to offer middle school levels.”

The Conseil’s lease on École Entre-lacs runs out at the end of June this year, and Allison writes that they are keen to reach an agreement allowing the school to move into McNicoll Park facility for the start of the 2016-17 school year.

The Okanagan Boys and Girls Club also sent in a letter, expressing their interest in taking over operation of Carmi Elementary and converting it to a community centre and expanding into it themselves.

Rick Hatch, a member of the West Bench Elementary parent’s advisory council, reported that the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen parks commission had voted to consider leasing a portion of the school for recreation activities.

Over the last few months, the school board has been seeking input from parents and the community about which schools in the district should close or not close. But for this meeting, they were seeking input on what to do with whatever facilities they eventually choose to close.

Many of the suggestions brought forward suggested empty schools could be converted to some form of housing, whether for low-income housing or seniors, as has been done in other jurisdictions, like Sudbury, Toronto and New Jersey, where a private firm, Conifer Living, is converting heritage schools into seniors’ housing.

Mayor Andrew Jakubeit conveyed the city’s stance that school sports fields are valued assets they would like to preserve, possibly by subdividing the fields from the school property.

“It has been a great partnership with the city and the school board to develop those fields and to do a joint user agreement and that is where the level of our concern comes from,” said Jakubeit. “We are hoping that those fields remain a community asset. It is not only organized sport that uses those fields. The neighbourhoods use them as public space, whether it is kids going there to play or parents coming there with their kids or grandkids.”

Bill Bidlake, school board vice-chair, said it’s unlikely the board could choose to stay with the status quo and not close any schools.

“Realistically, we have to help the budget process, so we are definitely looking at the possibility of school closures,” said Bidlake. He and board chair Linda Van Alphen agreed that working with the city to continue use of school fields was an option.

“It is a shame that anything has to get shut down. I would certainly like to see the fields, the gymnasiums whatever for us to have lease agreements wherever we can,” said Bidlake. “I think that would be a big job for us in the next little while, after the decision is made. How do we get those facilities leased out to groups that want to use them?”

Van Alphen said the board hadn’t intended to discuss alternate uses until after they had decided which schools were closed. However, she explained, that the Ministry of Education had mandated that a meeting collecting alternative community uses be part of the process they follow when evaluating school closures.