School District 67 will be deciding which public schools in Penticton and Summerland to keep open during a meeting on Jan. 20.
In addition to challenges surrounding declining enrolment numbers, there is an imbalance between educational offerings depending on which catchment area student lives in. To address both issues, some options propose that Penticton Secondary reconfigure to take all Grade 10 to 12 students in Penticton, drop programming for Grades 8 and 9 and alter Princess Margaret to be a Grade 6 to 9 school.
Leslie Lacroix, a teacher at Penticton Secondary, said there may be more to consider than what can be measured on paper.
“If you actually go and talk to the students (at Princess Margaret), they love their teachers, they love the relationships they have with their teachers. I know we don’t live in an ideal world where funding just comes through the pipelines, but please keep it in mind that there needs to be a balance between the money savings, but also the best thing for our kids, because you might find you’re paying a whole lot more down the road.”
The district laid out a short list of options to close and reconfigure schools within its boundaries during a public presentation on Oct. 26. The consideration of school closures and reconfiguration in the district was prompted by dwindling enrolment numbers, which the Ministry of Education uses to gauge financial support. Sixteen of the district’s 19 schools are operating under capacity and enrolment is projected to lessen. As a result, over $3 million in cuts are expected over the next three years. At least $750,000 will be cut each following year if capacity levels do not improve.
Although school closures can create stress, most parents seemed understanding of the need to address School District 67’s growing budget challenges, and there was a strong sense of relief in keeping Naramata and Kaleden off the chopping block.
“Unfortunately they’ve got to cut the budget somewhere, so there’s going to have to be a tough choice. They’ve put a lot of thought into it and I really appreciate the options that they gave us,” said Stacey Hanna from Naramata, who has children in Grade 4 and 6. “From the Naramata perspective I feel comfortable with the way things are, but it’s going to be affecting a lot of other people.”
As a visual display of support, Hanna was among a dozen people wearing a bright blue Naramata jersey at the meeting.
While the schools in Naramata and Kaleden are both operating under capacity, their strain on district resources is partially offset by a grant provided to rural schools. Nonetheless savings could still be realized by closing the schools, but cutting costs in those two communities seemed to be less of a priority.
“They are the backbones of a community. We all know that small rural schools generally are the centre of the community,” said superintendent Wendy Hyer. “The conversation was, ‘is that the first thing that we do, or are there other things we can do in larger centres to look at the amount of spaces that are available?’ It doesn’t mean that down the road we won’t be considering it, but certainly the board has chosen not to look at it at this time.”
Although most options require the community to compromise, the district pitched a plan to offer Early French Immersion, which would give students the option to begin studying the language in Kindergarten or Grade 1 instead of waiting until Grade 6. That opportunity will only be possible if savings are realized by exercising other options. Since tough choices have to be made before Early French Immersion can be viable, some parents saw that option as a carrot being dangled over their heads.
“The way that this was brought into the program, I don’t really understand why that’s relevant at this point,” said Miranda Halladay, a parent from Naramata. “Perhaps the board should give more consideration to what implications that has on the enrolment projections they have.”
“I don’t think it’s a carrot that’s being dangled,” Hyer said. “I think that our Late French Immersion numbers speak to the popularity of the program, and it’s something that we looked at a few years ago. Even though there was a desire for that program, we weren’t able to offer it because we don’t have the financial resources to do that. Whether or not there’s support for French as a program or opportunities to look at supporting other programs because we have the resources, those are all opportunities if we’re using our dollars to support education rather than to heat empty classrooms.”
School trustees allowed for questions after each of the options were presented. Members of the community asked about many of the implications, including the sale or lease of district property after a closure, the possibility of relocating playground equipment, ensuring adequate gym sizes for schools assuming more students and the responsibility to maintain vacant property.
To find the solution most palatable for the entire community, school trustees produced a criteria, though their decisions will be further influenced through public consultation.
“We just want the community to be aware of what those choices are, and to give us feedback on what they would prefer, provide some guidance, because they’re not easy decisions,” said secretary-treasurer Bonnie Roller-Routley. “We don’t get to decide whether or not we’ve got money for the budget – we have to. So knowing that, what’s the best way to do that in a way that meets the needs of our community?”
John Walbergs, who no longer has children attending schools through SD67, attended the meeting to see the district’s handling of reconfiguration.
“It gave me confidence that the board is looking at things very open-mindedly,” he said. “There are some decisions that are going to have to be made. Taking Kaleden and Naramata off the table is a very good call. If you take a school out of a rural community, that’s a tough call for those communities.”
Details of each plan can be found through their website sd67.bc.ca, by following the ‘from challenge to opportunity’ link on the homepage. Feedback is being collected online through a survey on the website, and also by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. To collect more feedback, there will be nine more meetings varying in format between Nov. 12 and Dec. 10; details of those meetings can be found on the district’s website. Questions and concerns can also be sent by mail to School District 67, 425 Jermyn Ave, Penticton, V2A 1Z4.