The threat to close Creston Education Centre (CEC) could undo efforts to prepare children for school, School District No. 8 (Kootenay Lake) representatives were told on June 15.
About 80 residents attended what could be a last chance to save CEC from closure as the school district scrambles to save on operational and maintenance costs of facilities in the region. They gathered in the CEC gymnasium to encourage trustees and administration to work with the community to keep programs and services in a central hub that the school district helped create more than a decade ago.
“It’s important to start reaching out, as we have heard loud and clear from our municipal governments,” district secretary-treasurer Kim Morris told the crowd, explaining that SD8 would be meeting with regional district and municipal leaders in the coming days.
Morris, Supt. Jeff Jones and board chair Lenora Trenaman started the evening off with presentations about the facility review process and the steps to be taken if a school is to be closed.
Little was said about announcement made earlier in the afternoon that the Province of British Columbia was creating a fund to help keep rural schools open. A press release described a number of criteria to define such schools, and identified Yahk and Winlaw schools as potential candidates for funding, which must be applied for on a year-to-year basis. Yahk Elementary School is slated for closure this month and has no students projected for enrolment in September.
Jones said that if CEC is closed in 2017, services such as speech therapy will be moved into offices in Prince Charles Secondary School (although most special services are aimed elementary school students), while Wildflower would go to Adam Robertson Elementary School and Homelinks would be housed in PCSS or Adam Robertson Elementary School. If both programs are moved to ARES, the aging facility would be at 106 per cent capacity.
Morris said that closing CEC would save $28,000 in operating costs and require a one-time spending of $118,000 to make minor renovations to PCSS and ARES. The main saving would come from avoiding $1.4 million in “deferred maintenance costs.” Not acknowledged was the promise by many Homelinks parents to pull out of the program if it is moved to a traditional school. If they register in other distance education programs, the school district would lose all connection with them, and the funding it currently receives.
Leading the way in presenting concerns about the projected closure was Valley Community Services administration manager Justine Keirn, who said that her agency appreciates the difficult decisions SD8 is faced with and proposed that the school district work with other local service providers to keep important services together, even if it means purchasing the facility.
“These services mean children are better prepared to enter school,” she said. “This hub is the envy of other communities.”
Keeping services and programs in one location means better access for families, increasing usage because they don’t have to move from one location to another, which can discourage parents, she said.
“Co-location allows access to other grants for other programs,” she said.
In effect, the CEC is a house of cards. Moving certain services or programs out affects the viability of others. Strong Start, for instance, must be located in a school, which means it can’t remain at CEC if Homelinks and Wildflower are relocated. Some programs programs provided by VCS and other agencies qualify for funding because they are connected to Strong Start.
“We are stronger together. We are better together,” she said.
Lost partnerships and diminished funding opportunities will lead to some programs disappearing altogether, Keirn added.
Creston preschoolers are particularly vulnerable, with the highest needs in the school district and among the highest in the province, she said.
Other speakers represented the Homelinks and Wildflower programs. An ARES parent advisory committee member spoke of concerns for both ARES students and participants in the alternative programs.
“Homelinks and Wildflower programs do not fit at ARES,” he said. “The philosophy and culture is vastly different. They are not compatible under the same roof. How can learning be optimal in small aging spaces and basements?”
He identified concerns of safety, with the alternative programs having a come-and-go component, which can be at odds with security needs in schools.
Regional District of Central Kootenay Area B director Tanya Wall implored the board of school trustees to slow down its decision-making with regards to CEC.
“The key is that we take the time needed,” she said. “July 1 is not long enough away to make a decision that affects lives in our community. We ask that you work with this community, work with us.”
Retired principal Nancy DeVuono drew on her 33 years of teaching in Creston, imploring the school district to recognize the importance of pre-school programs working in conjunction with the school system.
“It is hard to imagine how much trouble our kindergarten children would be having without these services,” she said. “Consider what would be lost. Work with us.”
A parent of a child with handicaps brought home the importance of pre-school programs for children and families.
“I’m nobody,” she said. “I’m just a mom with a child in Family Place. I barely make ends meet. I’m from Calgary and I came her to give my son a better chance.”
She spoke of having been a drug addict and prostitute, and having been a child with developmental delays. Her son, she said, was a victim of her own bad decisions when she was pregnant, and has deformations and congenital health issues.
“My son strives every day to get here and see his friends at Family Place. He couldn’t talk in January and he can now,” she said. “Because of this place my son has a better life.”