School district makes room for French students

School superintendent critical of decision to guarantee spots for students in Summerland and Penticton

School trustees made what a senior staffer described beforehand as a “poor decision” by guaranteeing 10 wait-listed students entry into the Okanagan Skaha School District’s late French immersion program.

The 10 students from Summerland were among the 44 kids who applied on time for one of 30 program seats there. Another 96 students applied for 90 seats in Penticton.

Based on those numbers, Summerland parents have complained their kids have poorer odds of getting into the program than do their Penticton peers.

To address that inequality, Trustee Tracy St. Claire put forward a motion at Monday’s school board meeting to guarantee those students will be offered a program spot in Summerland or Penticton by no later than Aug. 30.

“I’d like to give them the peace of mind over the summer that they know that they’ll have the option to do their schooling in French,” St. Claire said.

Superintendent Wendy Hyer noted that in the past, the district has been able to take in all wait-listed students, usually due to the “fair number” of kids who drop out of the program before the school year starts.

She added later, however, that guaranteed acceptance is problematic because it carries unknown budget implications.

“We’d like every student in the school district to receive every program they want, but given the budget restrictions, there are limitations,” Hyer said.

“I would be shirking my responsibilities as superintendent of schools if I didn’t advise you that, at the end of the day, it is a poor decision.”

Trustee Bruce Johnson sided with St. Claire and expects staff will somehow find space for the French learners.

“I’m confident that with our staff and their creativity, they will be able to find a solution,” he said.

Trustees Linda Beaven, Shelley Clarke and Walter Huebert also voted in favour of the motion, which passed by a 5-1 margin. Linda Van Alphen registered the lone vote against it.

“We’ve made a guarantee that we are going to have to do something that’s going to cost us money, and I think that we have to be very, very careful when we make decisions like that,” Van Alphen said.

Board chair Ginny Manning did not vote on the motion, but expressed concern that the guarantee could set a dangerous precedent.

“It can spill over into other things,” Manning said. “However, that’s the decision the majority made.”

Earlier in the meeting, the board voted unanimously not to begin planning for a new early French immersion program.

A working group that studied the concept’s feasibility projected three of the area’s smallest schools would see enrolment declines of up to one-third over six years because the new program would siphon away students.

Trustees also expressed concern about the unknown start-up costs of the program for kids in kindergarten to Grade 5. The working group’s report will be updated and brought back to the board for its 2014-15 budget deliberations.