Big decision on school closures hanging over everything Qualicum trustees face

The board is expected to make a decision on school closures at an April 29 meeting

School District 69 trustees are so close to the biggest decision of their term, it’s complicating their usual business.

Next Tuesday, April 29, the board will decide whether to accept staff recommendations to close four schools to help mitigate their growing operating deficit.

The theme of the night at the regular board meeting Tuesday night was, as trustee Julie Austin summed up: “I can’t see going forward with these in light of the decisions that will be made next week.”

She was speaking about the annual facility grant (AFG) application to the provincial government for almost a million dollars worth of building upgrades that aren’t included in the regular budget.

The 17 listed projects included everything from $6,500 for security upgrades at Springwood Middle School to $275,000 for heat pump and boiler work at Bowser Elementary. None of the schools facing closure were on the list.

Superintendent Rollie Koop said the projects are just proposed and can be adjusted through the year as they have done in the past.

Trustee Ross Milligan said he was worried about “the optics of doing this before a decision is made.” Suggesting that getting the paperwork submitted in time was more important, trustee Eve Flynn called for a vote, which was defeated by a 3-2 vote.

The question of school closures was felt in most topics, from a presentation by students who’d recently won top honours at the Skills Canada provincial competition, proving the value of the various school programs like carpentry, cooking and web design.

Several times through the evening Koop mentioned other work that is being delayed by staff’s focus on the closure issue, like completing their strategic plan update. Koop explained the process for the April 29 meeting, admitting they are still working out the details, talking to lawyers, the provincial government and districts that have gone through school closures, since this district hasn’t had to close a school.

“School closure can only be accomplished through the passing of a bylaw, and if there’s an attempt to close a school, each school individually would have to have an individual bylaw,” he said.

There will be bylaws presented for each of the elementary schools recommended for closure (Parksville, Winchelsea, Qualicum Beach and French Creek) and trustees will vote on each.

The other part of the equation — reconfiguring the district to a K-7 and 8-12 education model, eliminating middle schools and enabling the closures — can be done by district policy.

Koop told The NEWS that the closures could take affect this year. “We have done the background work to be in a position to have schools open in a reconfigured way in September,” but he added that there may be temporary arrangements and work to do throughout the year to settle in. The meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 29, in the usual board meeting room in the Parksville Civic and Technology Centre Forum, with the possibility of moving next door if the audience is too big.

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