Hours before School District No. 8 (Kootenay Lake) trustees and administrative staff were to face opponents of the Creston Education Centre’s proposed closure, news came from Victoria that more money is being made available.
“We need more information before we know how it might impact us,” Supt. Jeff Jones said before the meeting started.
A press release issued June 15 announced new funding to help keep rural schools open.
“Closing the only high school or elementary school in a rural community has a large impact on that local economy,” said Premier Christy Clark said in the release. “With Canada’s strongest economy it’s important that we make sure the benefits are shared by rural communities throughout our province to ensure they have the infrastructure they need to grow, attract talent, and provide critical services like health care. Our rural education strategy will help us accomplish this.”
To qualify for money under the Rural Education Enhancement Fund, criteria must be met: the rural community or sub-community (outside Greater Victoria, Lower Mainland and Kelowna) must have a population less than 15,000, closure would eliminate specific grades and funding must be used to keep the school open. Closures due to facility condition or extreme enrolment decline were not included.
Strangely, the announcement specifically included SD8’s Yahk and Winlaw elementary schools. Winlaw has been in the news because it has a healthy population of students but is an old building in need of upgrades. Former MLA Corky Evans has been quoted in news reports saying that 29 women in the Winlaw area are pregnant, and indication that the area’s school age population is continuing to grow. Yahk, conversely, closed out the 2015-16 school year with three students and has zero projected enrolments for September.
“This is definitely an election-oriented announcement,” said Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall. “It’s typical of Christy Clark’s approach to education as an afterthought and not as a priority.
“This wasn’t even discussed with school boards before it was announced.”
Mungall said the government’s lack of understanding of the issues school district’s face as they attempt to balance budgets is clear.
“Despite the minister of education’s visiting our school district recently and despite my letters and those from others, they still have no idea what’s going on in that ministry.”
She referred to a new compulsory IT program the ministry is introducing, and for which school districts will have to pay $25 million.
“How do you cut down on administration when additional administrative costs are being forced on you? And the rural funding is not guaranteed — it has to be applied for year after year. How do you make long-term plans for our children’s education? How can they be so backwards that they put Yahk at the top of the list?”
In addition to the funding, Clark announced she has instructed a newly appointed parliamentary secretary for rural education to conduct “a full study of rural education funding in the province to seek a long-term solution.”