This Friday, the public will have a chance to add their voice to the discussion about funding applications to keep Trout Creek and West Bench Elementary Schools open.
Board chair Linda Van Alphen said the district is now in possession of the criteria and other information to apply for funding from the new Rural Education Enhancement Program.
“We have the criteria, it is quite complex,” said Van Alphen, adding that a lot of the detail requested by the Ministry of Education is what they collected and distributed during the school closure consultations: long-range facilities plan, historical and projected enrolment figures, condition of the facilities.
“Due to the complexity of the questions required for the application process as well as a deadline date of June 24, the district will begin preparation prior to Friday’s meeting,” said Van Alphen.
“The agenda for the meeting will be posted on the district’s website on Wednesday.”
Van Alphen said the application also requests information on how both West Bench and Trout Creek see themselves as standalone communities.
“We are going to fill in the blanks and then we will bring it to the open meeting, which will be on Friday at 8 a.m.,” said Van Alphen.
That meeting will allow the public to comment on information the district is including in the applications.
“We don’t want to put anything negative in, this is a positive thing, although it has kind of thrown us for a loop,” said Van Alphen. “We’re excited about it for sure. We are working with the Trout Creek PAC and the West Bench PAC. It has been positive for us in that way because it has mended relationships. I am really happy to see that.”
Van Alphen confirmed that though West Bench Elementary wasn’t on the initial list of qualifying schools, the district would be applying for funding for it as well.
“We asked them that 15 minutes after Christy Clark did the media release, we asked why isn’t West Bench on that list,” she said, noting that the information they received from the ministry encouraged school districts to apply for any school that was slated for closure and they felt met the criteria.
The Rural Education Enhancement Fund, aimed specifically at keeping schools like Trout Creek Elementary open was announced June 15, with just a couple of weeks to go before the end of the school year, bringing with it the closure of three schools in the Okanagan Skaha School District.
“The results are that SD67 will receive the funding necessary to keep this school open. I would also ask the board to re-examine all possibilities to keep West Bench school open also,” said Penticton MLA Dan Ashton at a news conference on June 16 at Trout Creek Elementary.
Ashton wouldn’t speak to whether or not Trout Creek is likely to be approved, but suggested it’s likely.
Heleen van der Vyver has three children attending Trout Creek Elementary, two in the preschool program there and the third in Grade 1.
She said they really love the school.
“We are very fortunate that we are on that list. We are looking forward to having our kids in our community. That is very important to us,” she said. Should the school not be approved for funding, she said the fight to keep it open would continue.
Ashton, who lives in the Trout Creek area, pointed out the amount of growth the community is seeing, that he had never seen as much development starting as there is now.
“We have to look at ways to bring jobs to our communities. Those jobs are going to bring families and those families are going to help keep these schools full,” he said.
Van Alphen expressed some frustration with the timing of the funding announcement, explaining that it had been a long hard 10 months coming to the decision about which schools to close.
No trustee, she said, started the closure process thinking it was going to be fun.
“It is the way that it has been handled and that they allowed us to go through everything we have gone through. We would never have embarked on this if we knew this is coming down the pike,” said Van Alphen in a Wednesday interview.
Ashton said it wasn’t a last minute change, but that the government has been working on a solution for some time. “There has been a problem that has been identified,” said Ashton, adding that he and other MLAs have expressed their opinions to the premier how important these rural and sub-rural schools are to communities.
“If they have been up to now making plans how to close them, SD67 now has the opportunity to make plans to re-open Trout Creek and keep it open. The school board has been faced with some tough decisions with declining enrolment but the province has come through to adjust that because of the importance of rural schools.”
That importance goes beyond just educating students, according to Clark. “Closing the only high school or elementary school in a rural community has a large impact on that local economy,” she said. “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.”
The special public board of education meeting is scheduled for June 24 at 8 a.m., in the board room at the school board office on Jermyn Avenue in Penticton. Full details of the application process are available through the school district website at sd67.bc.ca.