School District #83 voted Tuesday night to consider the closure of two elementary schools in the region before the start of school in September.
As it was last year, Silver Creek Elementary is again being considered for a shutdown, with its students being amalgamated with those at Salmon Arm West. There is sufficient capacity at Salmon Arm West for all the students, with about 20 student spaces still left over.
The other proposed closure is for the historic building of Armstrong Elementary, with the creation of two K-7 schools, one at Len Wood and the other at Highland Park. This would reduce the number of Armstrong schools from four to three, with Pleasant Valley Secondary converting to a Grade 8-12 configuration.
While all the board members lamented the potential closures, the school district must make cuts of $1.3 million to its budget due to declining enrolment and increasing costs without additional funding from the provincial government.
Last week’s decision to accept the two motions does not mean the school closures are a done deal – instead the school district must initiate a 60-day public consultation process on each potential school closure before going to a final board vote on school closures at the end of April or early May. This will give the public a chance to provide information and feedback to trustees — which, if last week’s meeting was any indication, there will be strong opposition to closures from both Armstrong and Silver Creek parents.
Trustees were divided on the motions. Despite unanimous votes to bring the motions to the board a week ago, the three trustees from the two affected areas spoke strongly against the closures in their area.
Chris Coers expressed concern about the accuracy of school capacity data, saying schools use space differently than in the past and closures of these two schools might be short-sighted.
“If we are looking to close schools I think we need to be looking at every single other place we can cut in the process and take a look at it,” she said. “That being said, if we do nothing, where will we find the $1.3 million? I’m conflicted.”
Other trustees noted there is a cost to keeping schools with low enrolment open, especially when there is sufficient capacity for students in other nearby school buildings.
“It is not palatable to close any school, but if we keep both open where will we make the cuts? Which programs will be chosen to go, which child will suffer because we have had to cut their services? We heard loud and clear through the town hall meetings that parents and educators want to keep programs for students rather than buildings,” said trustee Michel Saab.
Board chair Bobbi Johnson reminded trustees that while they are elected in their own areas, they need to consider the needs of students across the district – not just in their own region.
“We need to make decisions for the good of every single child in the district… I don’t want to see the loss of learning resource teachers, of speech pathologists, of CEAs (certified education assistants), counsellors or literacy teachers. I don’t want us to have no money to help kids who are having problems and need help with learning,” said Johnson.
The vote to proceed with the closure consultation process in Armstrong was 6-3 in favour with trustees Rowe, Bob Fowler and Debbie Evans opposed, while the vote to move forward with the Silver Creek closure consultation was 5-4 with the same three trustees plus Chris Coers opposed.
The public was not allowed to speak at the meeting, but during question period at the end, there was a large number of questions, many of which reflected strong emotion from parents concerned about the impact to their children.
A parent from Armstrong asked the school district to provide information on administrative costs.
“I’d like to be shown what has been cut from administration before we take away schools from our children,” she said to loud cheers.
The school district has been the subject of criticism for cutting in many other areas including maintenance and school support services, but not making reductions in administration.
Johnson pledged to compile this information and post it on the school district’s website.