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Trustees face a distrustful audience

NDP MLA Scott Fraser looks at the capacity crowd at Tuesday night’s school board  meeting.           Auren Ruvinsky Photo -
NDP MLA Scott Fraser looks at the capacity crowd at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. Auren Ruvinsky Photo
— image credit:

The overflow audience at Tuesday’s School District 69 (Qualicum) Board of Education meeting was upset with the passing of first reading of a revised Board Policy 3040 on school closure, consolidation or reconfiguration, fearing the board was trying to close Kwalikum Secondary School without public consultation.

The large sliding doors on the Parksville Civic and Technology Centre Forum were opened, allowing a standing crowd of over 140 for the usually quiet board meeting.

Board chair Eve Flynn said new and revised policy starts with the District Policy Committee which includes two trustees, senior staff and representatives from parent and union groups.

“The review began in November with minor corrections suggested,” Flynn said, adding it had last been revised in 2003 and had fallen out of line with provincial regulation and a new Ministerial Order in 2008.

She said with school closure being a hot topic since the possibility arose last October, one of the members of the committee suggested there should be public consultation included in the policy.

They looked at the policies of other school districts, worked through two drafts and were now presenting it to the board moving it from the small committee to the public, allowing for feedback. After first reading it goes back to the committee with feedback where it would be worked on “for as long as it takes to get it right,” Flynn said.

“In seeing the concerns of the public I think it should go back to the committee before first reading,” said Trustee Inez Hutchison to a huge round of applause.

She said she isn’t in favour of the time frame and said the revised school closure policy “sounds like it’s enabling closing schools.”

“First reading doesn’t mean there can’t be major changes after,” said Trustee Jane Williams who is one of the two board representatives on the committee with Flynn.

Superintendent Candice Morgan read from the Board Bylaw 20 on policy development, quoting, “Upon passage of first reading the policy is sent to stakeholders and others as appropriate for review and feedback.”

“Do it properly the first time,” yelled people from the audience.

“I’d suggest that only one reading would be less democratic,” Morgan later said of the demand to only bring completed policies to the board.

Morgan pointed out the existing policy doesn’t require public consultation.

While the old policy calls for a minimum four months between deciding to close a school and closing one — based on the timing of four regular monthly school board meetings — the committee added a minimum 60-day public consultation period.

The proposed addition specifically lists requirements including public information meetings, individual meetings with partner groups, affected schools, and community representatives, public forums and an opportunity to provide written submissions.

The board would have to announce it was considering school closure, thus kicking off the process mandated by the policy.

“First reading is for the public, it isn’t about excluding the public,” said Trustee Bill Preston, visibly frustrated as the audience grumbled. “It has to be clearly stated the policy review is separate from the facility review process.”

Asked repeatedly to give a time when the policy would come back to the board, Flynn said she couldn’t because it would be up to the policy committee members and if any of the partners wanted more time to get feedback from their members, it would be delayed.

Hutchison, pointing out the amended policy was not time sensitive, spoke in favour of sending it back to the committee before putting it out to the public, but was outvoted as the rest of the board passed first reading to loud dissatisfaction and calls of “shame.”

“This is a very serious issue in our community,” said Barry Avis, starting the public question period at the end of the meeting.

Avis read a prepared statement calling the board’s policy on making and amending policy “insufficient,” not giving enough time for community feedback.

He talked about the importance of KSS to Qualicum Beach and that town council doesn’t feel they have been included in the process.

MLA Scott Fraser said he didn’t want to distract from the policy being discussed, but the issue coincided with the community’s fear of losing the school.

He blamed much of the problem on the “big injustice” of 10 years of government cuts.

Lynnette Kershaw said she has children in Grade 10 and 11 in KSS.

“It’s disappointing to see your disregard of the public outrage,” she told the board and asked why they wouldn’t send it back to the user groups.

Kershaw said it has been four months since the possibility of closing KSS came up and said there hasn’t been any public consultation and now they are introducing “highly restrictive revisions,” to the policy.

“This is an incorrect document to begin with, don’t give it validation,” she said.

“The facilities review process damaged the trust relationship with the community and you’ve done it again tonight,” said Phil Spencer, another parent.

“We want to trust you, but it seems like you’re tone deaf,” he said adding that things would be different if the board had apologized for the way they introduced the possibility of closing KSS, which the board has admitted wasn’t done well.

“We feel like crap, we want to trust you, what are you going to do to restore trust and get us on board?” he asked, waiting for an answer.

“I don’t expect you will ever trust me,” said Trustee Bruce Cownden who said he was amazed to see how hard his fellow trustees work for the children of the district.

Phil Carson, among other comments, asked the board to postpone a decision on school closures until after the municipal and trustee elections in November.

As comments from the gallery moved more to the fear of KSS closing, Flynn tried to cut the discussion off several times and ended up adjourning the meeting while someone was talking, leading to the board and most staff walking out while the crowd remained to talk among themselves.

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