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What's next for soon-to-be-empty school buildings in Parksville Qualicum Beach?

Now that the school board decision has been made to close four elementary schools, parents and community leaders agree there still a lot of work to be done.

"We understand the difficult nature of the decision and why it was made, and now we have to shift the conversation to what has to be done to to repurpose those buildings," said Parksville Mayor Chris Burger.

Burger is also a parent of a student in a closing elementary school and one in a changing middle school. (Four elementary schools were closed: Parksville, Winchelsea, French Creek and Qualicum Beach.)

"Both my kids will be impacted like all kids in the district whether their school's being closed or they are taking new students," he said, but wasn't too worried about the impact on them, echoing a sentiment mentioned at least once at most of the public consultations — kids are resilient and they'll get over it quicker than the parents."

Everyone’s stated goal is to make the transition as painless as possible.

“This is a very sad day in this district to have to close four schools,” said Mount Arrowsmith Teachers Association president Debbie Morran, but she recognized “the trustees did what they had to. Education is underfunded, the ministry (of education) is starving the system, trustees are running the district on a shoestring.”

She recognizes “the district is trying to keep the cuts away from the students and we understand the rationale, as Lynnette (Kershaw, board chair) explained if they didn’t close schools they would have to cut educational programs.”

Morran said the district has sent out more than 100 lay-off notices for the end of the school year and will hire back most of them for the reorganized district in September.

That is the normal process, she said, though there where a higher number of notices this year than usual.

“We don’t anticipate a large number of teachers being laid off,” Morran said, adding are in close contact and working well with the district despite troubled contract negotiations on the provincial level under which teachers are in the first stage of work to rule job action.

Asked about the funding crunch issues, Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell said that was up to the districts.

“Education has received a funding lift across the province despite declining enrolment, but the reality is that the government is committed to balancing its budget,” she said. “School boards are required to manage their resources and budgets responsibly, like all other public bodies. It’s a tough job, but necessary.”

She said the ministry is working with districts to minimize the impact on students and added that in this district “enrolment has unfortunately dropped 22 per cent since 2001.”

Superintendent Rollie Koop previously explained the district is in a funding-protection program due to the declining enrolment, which minimizes the annual decrease, but they still lose one per cent a year, which is a lot when most of their expenses are fixed or rising and most are out of their control, including provincial salary negotiations.

Stilwell said she is unaware of any plan to review the current funding formula.

Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser called on the government to consider the big picture and review the formula.

“There used to be a combination of core funding and per student funding,” he said, “and without that a lot of the province would never have been colonized.”

“It’s about government priorities,” Fraser said. “The communities are where economic activity is generated and (the government) is not looking at the great cost to these communities of losing schools. This is supposed to be a business-friendly government but look at all the business opportunities lost — closing schools makes it harder to attract and keep young families in the area and that affects economic development.”

Meanwhile, Burger added: “We’ll be seeking to have conversations with the school board,” about the buildings, which they have already been doing. He added that there are ideas like a care facility bouncing around, but those are just early ideas.

Burger also looked at another big-picture perspective: “We also need to ask ourselves why there are so many fewer young people. It’s a symptom of a larger issue that we have to make an investment in to keep drawing younger families here.”

He said the municipal councils in Parksville and Qualicum Beach are doing the limited things they can to attract economic activity, namely having the right policies in place, but it really takes higher-level investments in transportation and job programs.

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