“The worst thing they can say is no.”
That was the reasoning behind SD8 trustee Cody Beebe’s resolution to include six schools in the Kootenay Lake school district’s upcoming application to the rural education enhancement fund, created in a surprise announcement by the provincial government last week.
Many present at an emergency meting Wednesday in Salmo expected the board to apply for the funds on behalf of Winlaw and Jewett, because at first glance it appeared that the other four potentially on the chopping block didn’t meet the criteria laid out in the announcement, which gave a deadline of Friday to apply.
But because of the chaotic and rushed situation, Beebe and others on the board felt maybe other schools might have a chance to make the cut. And technically speaking, he said, all of the schools in SD8 should qualify as rural.
“They kind of threw us all under the bus. Let’s do the same thing to them,” said Beebe, who was seconded and supported by trustee Heather Suttie on multiple occasions. He urged the board to “cast a broad net.”
“This situation seems to change minute by minute, hour by hour,” trustee Bob Wright said, before proposing putting forward an application for Winlaw, Jewett and Salmo elementary. Other schools floated for consideration were Canyon-Lister and the various schools around Creston.
“I don’t know if Winlaw is eligible. I don’t know if Salmo is eligible. It seems like the rules keep changing,” said Wright.
Some trustees felt they should apply for all six schools facing closure, while others pointed out that applying for funding to keep open Yahk — which will have no students enrolled next year — would be a waste of everyone’s time.
Ultimately four resolutions were put forward, and the final result is the board is going ahead with the applications for Winlaw, Jewett, W.E. Graham and Salmo. It was a decision they didn’t come to easily, with Trenaman saying she felt pulled “back and forth.”
Trustee Sharon Nazaroff introduced W.E. Graham into the conversation, and successfully got it added to the list even though it’s not currently on the list of schools being considered for closure. She argued that because the facilities plan is not yet finalized, W.E. Graham could still be in danger.
“We’re in a balancing act as far as the Slocan Valley goes and I think it would be prudent to apply,” she said.
The administration’s recommendation is to funnel the cash into a special purpose fund that could go towards addressing the district’s piling deferred maintenance costs, which trustee Rebecca Huscroft reminded everyone has increased $30 million in the last five years.
“We need to use the money to address our biggest concern,” she said. “We know this [announcement] is knee-jerk. We know this is an election thing. This is anguishing on all the communities.”
Superintendent Jeff Jones shared with the public that he’s “flummoxed” by the government’s handling of this situation, and floated the possibility that the board could reject the funds if they deem their use counterproductive to their overall facilities planning process.
When Nazaroff expressed alarm at the idea of rejecting the funds, Jones made it clear that he wasn’t suggesting the board reject the funds yet. He said they would only potentially reject the cash if it was earmarked for operations as opposed to their deferred maintenance.
In other words: even if the board is successful in applying for these funds, the schools might close anyway. They’re concerned the announcement will derail their two-year facilities plan, which they will finalize on July 5. And the board doesn’t trust what it’s hearing from the Ministry of Education.
“Even though the ministry has said the funds are ongoing, I’m sorry,” Trenaman said — she doesn’t believe them. “We are all quite agitated and really need to think about the future here.”
After much of the voting was done, parents were given an opportunity to speak. One Slocan Valley parent put it this way: “Thank you for acknowledging how hard this has been on all of us. We’re reiterating: we’re looking for a long-term solution.”
Trustee Curtis Bendig said he’s feeling conflicted about the funding announcement.
“I support more money for public education but I’m struggling with how this has been rolled out,” he said. “This is certainly very frustrating that in order to get attention for our schools we need to consider them for closure.”