West Boundary parents met with the Boundary Board of Education (school board) and senior administrators at School District 51 (SD 51) Thursday evening, Feb. 24, to discuss the future of Midway Elementary School (MES).
Thursday’s meeting was the second round of public consultations ahead a school board vote on whether or not to close MES and bring staff and students to neighbouring Greenwood Elementary School (GES). School board Chair Rose Zitko said trustees may decide to host another consultation in Midway before their deciding vote, now scheduled for March 15.
The three-hour meeting at Midway’s Boundary Central Secondary School (BCSS) touched off hard questions and at times flatly critical remarks from the floor, mostly directed at district Superintendent Anna Lautard.
In a show of empathy for all concerned, Lautard acknowledged that the public consultation process had left many people feeling ignored.
“It’s a horrible process,” she told the floor, adding, “Our policy itself is not the best policy to be able to have a discussion in the open about a closure that affects so many people and makes people feel incredibly emotional.”
The Superintendent went on to say, “I understand the mistrust. I understand that it might not make sense, but it’s the only process that we have.”
But Lautard stuck to her position that closing MES was probably the best solution to longstanding concerns on the part of past principals at both schools and past superintendents. Having to share a principal between Midway and Greenwood compromises staff’s ability to give students the fullest possible adult supervision while also meeting students’ diverse needs, she said.
“We can’t schedule when students will have a difficult time,” Lautard continued, stressing that tough situations are best handled where staff and students are under one roof.
Combining the schools at GES would make local teaching jobs more attractive to educators who generally prefer to work in one school. Next, MES is the older of the two schools and has fewer students, nearly three-quarters of whom live in Greenwood, according to SD 51.
Several speakers at Thursday’s meeting, including Midway Mayor Martin Fromme, highlighted that closing MES would cut off $230,000 in annual district funding from the Ministry of Education, on top of a huge social cost to the village. Fromme and others further also pointed out that SD 51 has no definitive plan for what to with MES if it were closed.
Addressing his first point, district treasurer Miranda Burdock said the $230,000 represented just over one per cent of SD 51’s operating budget of around $18.5 million. Loosing that one per cent would not meaningfully impact SD 51’s bottom line, which she said had very little to do with the district’s proposal to shut down MES, anyway.
Burdock further explained that the $230,000 was never specifically designated for MES, nor to any other school in particular. That amount instead reflects a ministry formula that determines funding for the entire district.
The ministry’s formula “is not a spending plan,” Burdock said.
Addressing his second point, Lautard said SD 51 couldn’t reasonably hammer out a concrete plan about what to do with the building at MES until the board resolved what to do with the school.
Meanwhile, Parents and community members didn’t hesitate to say they weren’t convinced.
Walt Osellame, a longtime former principal at BCSS, said studies showed children do better in smaller learning environments. Echoing a previous speaker, he said the district’s case for closing MES wasn’t sufficiently compelling.
Calling upon the school board to “consider yourselves a jury,” Osellame implored trustees to “find all the evidence” and make a decision in collaboration with villagers.
Fred Marshall, whose grandchildren attend MES, said putting Midway kids in kindergarten through Grade 3 with GES kids in Grades 4-7 would put the youngsters at risk of bullying.
Norm Sabourin, president of the Boundary teachers’ union, also opposed the closure, writing in a letter to SD 51 that the district’s concerns about staffing were “a separate problem that needs to be addressed on its own.”
He further pointed out that closing MES could cost union jobs while depriving students of special programs. “While it is easy for district management and the (school) Board to claim there is no intention to make any cuts if MES is closed, we all know that isn’t always the case when conditions change,” Sabourin wrote.
Vicki Gee, who represents the West Boundary on the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary’s board of directors, said she the school board was up against a very tough choice.
Speaking to the district’s safety concerns, Gee said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have too few adults in a building.” She then granted that, “A lot of good things can come from having a large property in a community and I look at Midway and I see so much here.”
Teachers, administrators and other staff came down on both sides in their letters to SD 51.
Peter Scott, former principal at MES and GES, agreed with the district’s position on safety and delivering on students’ needs. “Presence and availability are two important aspects of leading a school versus simply managing it. Unfortunately, both those components are lacking when a principal is split between two schools,” he wrote.
Donna Boisvert, Administrative Assistant at GES, wrote that, “While there have certainly been advantages to this setup, I believe those have been exhausted, and the benefits of merging are greater than the benefits of remaining separate.”
Denise Herdman, head teacher at MES, opposed the potential closure, pointing out that it was her role to provide supervision when the principal was away.
Tanya Dagg, who works with the schools’ many Indigenous students, meanwhile pointed out that shuttering MES would cut off outdoor learning opportunities for all kids. Dagg’s colleague Melissa Ping wrote that while some challenges had come up at MES, “Our only wish has been for a colour printer.”
West Boundary and Beaverdell elementaries’ Principal Nick Bond gave a more nuanced view. Bond wrote that he’d also faced the kinds of difficulties at MES and GES when he had to split his time between two schools. He also pointed “the intangible effect a small elementary school can bring to a community.”
Of the 35 letters that came into SD 51 before Feb. 17, 23 opposed closing MES, with seven backing the measure and five expressing mixed opinions.
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