An overflow crowd attended Tuesday’s school board meeting in Parksville to hear four elementary schools will be closed and the middle school model dropped.
“The fact is we have 2,000 seats we don’t need, we won’t need for the foreseeable future” said board chair Lynette Kershaw. “We don’t have the money to sustain what we want to do for children — every dollar that we don’t save, we have to cut from in front of children.”
Starting with the decade-long history of the process, superintendent Rollie Koop explained the demographic writing has been on the wall and declining enrolment has led inevitably to the closures of the follwing elementary schools: Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Winchelsea and French Creek.
Required to submit balanced budgets to the provincial government, staff projects the closures will save the district $1.1 million a year on their increasing operating deficit, plus several million in deferred maintenance, with $450,000 in one-time moving and renovating costs.
The Board of Education of School District 69 (Qualicum) voted unanimously Tuesday to reconfigure the district to a Kindergarten to Grade 7 and Grade 8-12 model, then addressed motions closing the four schools individually and consolidating each with the school where students will be sent.
French Creek elementary students, for example, will now be in the Errington Elementary catchment area.
Current Parksville Elementary students will be sent to two different schools, with English students going to Springwood Middle School and French Immersion students going to Oceanside Middle School where dual track immersion will continue.
Short public comment sections opened each set of recommendations, with people taking to the mic to call on the board to defer specific decisions for a year.
Qualicum Beach Elementary brought out the most supporters, complete with signs and a business plan.
“We have done everything that’s been asked of us by the trustees,” said Anne Skipsey, co-chair of the Qualicum Beach Community School steering committee (QBCSC). “We have delivered a viable and innovative business plan thats supported by, and inclusive of, our whole community.”
Qualicum Beach town councillor and QBCSC member Mary Brioulette said the district has had nine years to look for solutions, but the public has only had 90 days on this round and they should get more time.
She said the town has committed considerable time and resources to saving the school including offering to provide the required community school co-ordinator.
“There are a lot of elements of the community school that I agree with,” Kershaw said. “But it doesn’t put a penny in our operating budget… the grants are great, if you get them, there’s no guarantee if you apply for a grant you get it, and we can’t use grants for operating budgets.”
Kershaw, who was elected in 2011 largely on the issue of saving Kwalikum Secondary, which had been recommended for closure at that time, said she recognized herself in the current group.
“This process is excruciating and will continue to be excruciating, closing any schools is tough,” she summed up, and then voted with the rest of council to close the school. Those students will go to Arrowview Elementary or Qualicum Beach Middle School.
Trustee Julie Austin voted against the motions to close Qualicum Beach, citing fears related to Qualicum Beach the property would be sold to commercial interests.
Things got a bit more complicated on the French Creek Community School motion, with Austin voting against all the motions, which meant the board couldn’t do all three readings as they did with the others, which required unanimous consent.
With the other four trustees voting to close, the motion on French Creek still passed, but they have to wait until the next meeting for third reading.
Winchelsea Elementary, the fourth school, will close as an elementary school, but a number of district services, including the PASS/Woodwinds Alternate School and Continuing Education Centre, will relocate there and stop leasing their current Mill Street site.
Several schools will be re-named in the process, changing middle schools to elementary schools for the paper work, but Koop assured the audience the schools can re-name themselves once they settle into the new configurations.
“This was so disappointing, they didn’t give us a chance to show the opportunities available,” said Skipsey after the vote. “We put, I’d say, thousands of volunteer hours into it.”
“There’s a group of people that had their heart and soul in this working plan to make Qualicum Beach Elementary School a community school,” said Qualicum Beach Mayor Teunis Westbroek. “Not giving this group a chance is suicidal,” he said, citing a presentation from Dr. Paul Hasselback about the health-positive effects of community schools.
The reconfiguration and closures will all take effect as of August 1, 2014 and staff has said there will be a number of details to work out with catchment areas, exact school configurations and required renovations and the repurposing of the closed schools.