Premier Christy Clark said the province is committed to its new understanding of the importance of schools in rural communities.
“We are committed to growing rural economies in B.C. We want to reverse this flow to urban communities,” said Clark. “They (rural communities) have a lot of trouble growing again if their school has been closed. We should try to keep more of those schools open.”
Clark said the funding provided by the Rural Education Enhancement Fund, which allowed Trout Creek and West Bench Elementary to keep operating, is permanent.
“The funding formula works in most places, but the problem is that in smaller rural communities where there aren’t other schools nearby, it doesn’t always work,” said Clark, laying the decision to close schools on local school boards.
“School boards sometimes make decisions that meet their bottom line, but they don’t always serve their community,” said Clark.
Linda Van Alphen, chair of the Okanagan Skaha School District board, said all they were doing was responding to the strictures placed on them by the province and the Ministry of Education: a fixed, and shrinking budget that has to be balanced along with demands from the ministry to build the enrolment in schools, to make sure they are operating closer to capacity.
“They have not backed away from that. We had a communication just a few days ago, that they are still expecting us to fill our schools,” said Van Alphen. “I just feel that people have got to start shouting from the rooftops that this is not political, it is about kids and it is about something that was mandated for the school board.”
Van Alphen was also concerned by Clark placing the credit for keeping the rural schools open on Penticton MLA Dan Ashton and other politicians.
“Dan persuaded me that we needed to approach rural schools in a different way,” said Clark. “Local people made their voice heard and it was clear that the school board wasn’t responding, that was when Dan Ashton stepped in.
“He knew that this community needed somebody to stand up for it.”
Van Alphen, however, looks at long months of the school trustees examining every alternative before deciding to close schools and the work done by the parents.
“We are certainly happy for the funding, but I don’t think the premier has taken any consideration for the amount of time that parents, trustees and senior staff had put into not only the school closure process, but the application process,” said Van Alphen.
“She was making it sound like it was just one or two people that got the job done, and I felt very badly, especially for the parents, because they have been the strongest voices.”
While Clark said the fund is permanent, Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson is heading up a rural schools advisory committee to examine the funding problem.
“Really, we need to figure out a better formula, a more permanent formula for funding it,” said Clark. “In terms of the broader funding formula, I think her work is going to tell us whether we need to do more work on the big funding formula.”