Penticton and Summerland parents hoping for reversal of school closures

Penticton MLA Dan Ashton makes announcement for funding to the Okanagan-Skaha School District for the upcoming school year.

Penticton and Summerland parents hoping for reversal of school closures

A glimmer of hope.

It is what parents of Trout Creek Elementary and West Bench Elementary said they have after an announcement by Penticton MLA Dan Ashton on Tuesday that the provincial government is providing the Okanagan-Skaha School District with $266,527 for the upcoming school year. He is calling for the funds to be used to save the two schools from their pending closure slated for June 30.

“It is now time for the school district to respond and reopen at least one of these schools, if not both,” said Ashton.

The  funding is coming from the $25 million in administrative savings from school districts and redirected to school boards across the province to be used in any way they see fit — from hiring new teachers, to programs or for maintaining schools despite falling enrolment in certain regions. The money originates from the 2015 budget when the government announced a plan to force school districts to cut $29 million in 2015 and a further $25 million in 2016.

Ashton called on the school district to ask for a special adviser to review the process that led to the decision to close Trout Creek Elementary School and possibly a compromise to allow for the school reopening.

Given the concerns raised by the community about this process, Ashton said a review is the best way for the school district to restore public trust in its decision-making process. The Ministry of Education confirmed that if the Okanagan-Skaha School District agrees to the special adviser, all costs would be paid by the ministry.

School board chairperson Linda Van Alphen said the board will meet behind closed doors to discuss the next steps and the offer for a special adviser. She said their process on school closures has been “solid.”

Parents of Trout Creek students remain optimistic, however, they continue to share the message they are unhappy with the school board closure process.

Kyle Stevens said if parents can trust there is a special adviser looking into the process then it would be reasonable that they should step away from any potential legal action.

“I feel hopeful and I am thankful that the province has been listening when in fact the board has not,” said Meaghann Pleasance, a parent of a Trout Creek student.

Pleasance said parents have put in thousands of hours researching options on how to keep the school open to provide information to the board. Information that she says has been largely ignored. She hopes the offer for a special adviser will be taken advantage of by the school board.

“I am hoping it shows the board there are other people listening and that our concerns about the process and lack of engagement with us have been validated,” said Pleasance.

While a lot of the focus was on Trout Creek Elementary School, the co-chair of West Bench Parent Advisory Council  is also holding onto hope that measures can be taken to keep the doors open.

“I think really the parents and the community are so devastated that they really felt there was no hope left and this is at least something we can cling on to and hopefully the school board will finally listen to us,” said Heather Allen.

Ashton said the Ministry of Education has confirmed that the Okanagan-Skaha School District stands to lose annual rural school grants as a result of the school closures. He also highlighted that the Okanagan-Skaha School District has $1.9 million in operating surplus in the bank.

In Osoyoos, Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson announced $118,102 in funding  and called for it to be used by the Okanagan-Similkameen School District to save Osoyoos Secondary School.

“Between the $118,102 in money that I have announced today, and other possibilities such as using the property to generate other revenue, I believe we have a viable plan to keep Osoyoos Secondary School open,” Larson said.

A parent who is chairing the newly announced board of Osoyoos Independent School, as a means to keep the students in the community and not be bussed to Oliver, said the money is “not enough to swoop in and save the day.”

“I think that some of the other media in Oliver and Osoyoos blew (the announcement) up to be more than it was in advance and made it seem like the school was going to stay open,” said Brenda Dorosz. “ I was up all night fielding phone calls from media outlets and parents. A bunch of kids came down to the announcement, my son included, and now here we are again with a bunch of kids standing on the front lawn of town hall crying again because they had their hopes up. These kids even missed classes for it. It is very disappointing. It breaks my heart to see those kids so upset.”

Dorosz said the Osoyoos Independent School will continue on as planned — registrations were being taken on Tuesday and Wednesday. She said the documents are ready to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Good Shepherd Christian School and those papers will soon be turned over to Osoyoos council to be reviewed.

“The announcement wasn’t that we were handed a bunch of money, or even a promise. Could it happen? Yes, but we asked to all come to the table and meet in January and it didn’t happen. I don’t have faith that they will keep our school open come September. I’m hellbent on keeping kids here in Osoyoos and if it has to be an independent school then that is what we are going to do,” said Dorosz. “We can’t sit around and wait. Our kids are more important than that. Families have been on a roller coaster and it is not fair.

B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker praised teachers, students, parents and school trustees who have spoken out to provincial government on education funding.

“I think folks in the school system will feel some relief today,” said Iker. “While we are appreciative the government is making this move, it should never have happened in the first place. It’s incumbent upon teachers, parent groups, and school trustees to keep reaching out to government MLAs to ensure they understand the depth of the crisis, and commit to taking more action.”

John Horgan, leader of the New Democrats said the funding flip-flop shows Premier Christy Clark’s claim that they have no control over local decisions about school closures is false.

“I’m so disappointed that this is what it takes to get Christy Clark to listen — that parents and kids have to mount public campaigns and embarrass the B.C. Liberals to be heard,” he said.

Horgan said this was a political play and was about “trying to make bad headlines go away until after the election.”