Okanagan Skaha School District 67 trustees voted on Penticton and Summerland school closures on Wednesday.

Okanagan Skaha School District 67 trustees voted on Penticton and Summerland school closures on Wednesday.

Board decides to close schools in Trout Creek, West Bench and Penticton

West Bench Elementary, Trout Creek elementary and McNicoll Park will all close on June 30.

Holding back tears Angela Vandewater asked school trustees who were considering shutting down her children’s school to look at the photo she handed to each of them.

“Those are two of the faces that are going to be affected if you close the school. My child, the girl, needed this school to be K to 5. She needs that leadership. She relies on it.  She depends on it. If she doesn’t have it she is going to flounder all the way to Grade 8 and I don’t even think she will get it then. I do what I can do for her but she needs her peers. I really urge you to stop this today,” said Vandewater. “I have lost sleep and spent hours and hours thinking of ways and I will continue to do so. Please vote against this or choose to delay this.”

Two of the trustees agreed with Vandewater’s plea to delay closing Trout Creek School, along with West Bench Elementary, but it wasn’t enough. The votes to close the two schools, and McNicoll Park in Penticton, deflated the crowd of approximately 75 parents and some students who gathered on Wednesday to voice their last attempts to get trustees to change their minds.

Trustee Bruce Johnson, who appeared via tele-conference call because he is receiving medical treatment in Kelowna, held to his original vote almost one month ago. He said closing Trout Creek school would not be helping the students in the district. Johnson said West Bench elementary is a very important part of the community and he is against busing students across the city.

“Sticking with my beliefs, at this point with the situation with our school district, I will not be voting for any school closures at this time,” said Johnson.

Vice-chairperson Bill Bidlake voted against closure of two of the three schools wanting to explore options with a timeline to revisit the issue in one year. Bidlake said he is willing to work closely with West Bench and Trout Creek to try and come up with some savings.

“I think it is very important that we understand that our slogan in the past, certainly in my career, is that kids come first. The scenerio we are in right now with the budget process obviously is going to be very difficult. On one hand you can close absolutely no schools and you are not living by that slogan, you are not taking the kids into consideration because you are going to have to lay off a lot of teachers, a lot of programs that you used to have, I used to have, or my kids have, wouldn’t exist,” said Bidlake. “Close too many schools down and we are not fitting that bill either. There is some balance that has to take place. There is pressure for us to obtain those savings and those saving are important.”

Board chairperson Linda Van Alphen said she feels it is more important to have children in classrooms where they are getting the support, the teachers and resources they need.

“If we don’t make closures then we are going to have to make cuts and I think that is something that is missed in all of these conversations,” said Van Alphen.

Parents presented a petition to the board against closing schools in Summerland that had 1,780 signatures before the vote. Trustee Manning said through her research it was often pointed out it is the teachers and staff that made kids successful, not the building they were in.

Rick Hatch, a parent of a West Bench elementary student, expanded on several options that have come to the table late to prevent closure of that school. That includes a letter to the school district from West Bench RDOS Director Mike Brydon who put forward a proposal that residents in the area could pay extra property taxes to foot the bill to keep the elementary school open. The proposal would need voters assent and could mean $100 to $500 more in taxes for property owners.

The school board said they would not be discussing the proposed idea because it had come after the deadline they laid out to receive community feedback. Instead they will review it at their next meeting on April 11. According to Robert’s Rules on board meetings, if it is deemed a good idea to explore, it would require a trustee who voted to close the school to ask to rescind the bylaw.

At the core of Hatch’s argument is shutting the doors of a school is the equivalent of removing a communities heart.

“By removing schools you remove the lifeblood of communities … you are sending a message that this is not a vital and thriving community,” he said.

With a provincial election coming in 2017 Hatch also noted that changes in leadership could mean changes in education funding.

Van Alphen said she believes leaving West Bench school open for another year is just putting off the inevitable.

“I don’t think the idea of a referendum, although we had not had an opportunity to talk at length about it amongst our trustees … I think it would be putting off a situation that is going to have to happen and at the end of the day do we really want to go through this for another year?” said Van Alphen, to which the crowd responded negatively.

There are two appeals before the school board in front of the B.C. Office of the Ombudsman and another on the school act with the ministry of education. According to the school district bylaw the schools will close on June 30. Next year students from McNicoll will be diverted to KVR Middle School or Skaha Lake Middle School. Those who would have attended West Bench Elementary will move to Carmi Elementary school with bussing routes and times established and announced before the end of June. Summerland will have a reconfiguration of their secondary school to hold grades 8 to 12, Summerland Middle School will be grades 4 to 7 and Giant’s Head Elementary School will be a K to grades 3 primary school.